Supervisors Signal Commitment to Boosting Funds for Public Safety

City News Service Pristine Villarreal

RIVERSIDE (CNS) – The Board of Supervisors Tuesday closed hearings on the proposed $8.6 billion budget for Riverside County government in fiscal year 2023-24, signaling support for greater appropriations to fund public safety projects and reopen an animal shelter.

“We heard from several departments this year that requested more funding to better serve our residents,” Board Chairman Kevin Jeffries said. “This current budget reflects investments in many of our most needed areas.”

Following hearings Monday and Tuesday afternoon, the board committed to a series of spending authorizations that were not originally included in the budget drafted by the Executive Office.

Sheriff Chad Bianco testified that the Sheriff’s Department was “on track to end 2022-23 with a balanced budget,” but he had a handful of needs unmet in the spending plan laid out by the EO, which proposed $1.01 billion in expenditures, compared to $942 million in the current-year budget.

The sheriff said among the higher costs built into next year’s budget is an “enhanced management” policy that will put lieutenants in station-based supervisory roles, ensuring more sergeants are “out in the field with deputies.”

The board committed to providing $1.45 million to the effort.

Bianco also said he wanted to establish a permanent “problem-oriented policing” team to handle noise and party complaints, particularly on the weekends, largely in the unincorporated mountain communities and the Temecula Valley, where the majority of short-term rental properties in the county are located. Four deputies would be dedicated to the POP unit, as well as at least four Department of Code Enforcement officers.

The board indicated it would provide $1.49 million in support of the POP initiative.

The sheriff did not request additional funds to fully open the John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, where just under 400 inmate beds are in use, out of a potential 1,600 available at the state-of-the-art facility.

District Attorney Mike Hestrin requested $2.5 million more in the agency’s proposed budget than recommended by the EO, bringing his total ask to $191.14 million.

The board tentatively committed to $2.1 million in additional appropriations, mainly for establishment of a full-time call center to assist members of the community in need of assistance from the D.A.’s office, as well as make 15 temporary employees permanent.

Hestrin listed a number of challenges weighing on the D.A.’s office, including an ongoing departure of personnel, largely through retirements. The agency is down to 234 prosecutors — the lowest number in the last decade. The average caseload per deputy district attorney is 100.

Hestrin said the state Legislature’s mandates in recent years have stacked layers of new responsibilities onto D.A.’s offices statewide, and Riverside County is among those bearing a heavy burden.

Examples include the California Racial Justice Act, as amended under Assembly Bill 256, which provides avenues for a defendant serving time in prison or jail to petition courts for retrial or re-sentencing based on even faint evidence of racial bias exhibited by judges, jurors, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and others involved in the original conviction; and Assembly Bill 2169, which permits individuals to petition for nullification of their convictions if they can prove they were victims of human trafficking at the time they committed their nonviolent offense.

Fire Chief Bill Weiser originally sought $537 million in appropriations, with the EO recommending $457.3 million. The current-year budget is $443.4 million.

Some of the budgetary requirements he cited were expansion of the hazardous materials unit, the ongoing conversion of three fire stations from wildland outposts to municipal stations and bulking up staff at the Cabazon and French Valley stations to ensure a higher level of “surge staffing” is available for Wildfire Season between July and November.

“It’ll add that extra horsepower we’ll probably need to get through fire season,” he told the board Monday.

The supervisors committed to $2 million more for the fire department to meet surge staffing needs.

The board also embraced a Department of Animal Services proposal to reopen the San Jacinto Valley Animal Campus, at a cost of $3.4 million.

The facility was shut down in fiscal year 2019-20 due to the department’s inability to overcome years-long budgetary shortfalls.

Tentative adoption of the proposed 2023-24 budget is slated for June 27.

County CEO Jeff Van Wagenen said the proposed budget “creates the opportunity to enhance the efforts of our departments providing vital programs for our constituents countywide.”

The proposed budget is roughly 15% larger than the current year’s budget of $7.45 billion. Close to half of the appropriations are comprised of state and federal “pass-through” funds, over which the board has little to no control.

One of the highlights in the roughly 1,000-page budget report was the projection for reserve funds to reach $555 million by the end of 2023-24, compared to an estimated $537 million reserve pool at the close of the current fiscal year on June 30.

Copyright 2023, City News Service, Inc.

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