Southern California -- this just in

« Previous Post | L.A. NOW Home | Next Post »

County Jail to stay open, for now

June 30, 2009 |  3:33 pm

After threatening to close a County Jail on Wednesday if he is forced to make an additional $25 million in cuts to his $2.5-billion budget, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca agreed today to delay making such a move until September, after a testy exchange with county supervisors.

The sharp words on both sides took place amid demands for belt-tightening across county departments. Last week, the county supervisors passed a budget that required 7% to 15% cuts by all departments.

Baca sent a letter to the board saying that cuts planned for his department would force him to close the 1,600-bed North Facility, one of five jails at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. The sheriff said he planned to move 187 jail staff members to other county facilities, transfer some inmates and release others early.

Speaking to the board at their meeting this morning, Baca said he did not want to close the jail. He proposed that instead of cutting his budget, they consider  covering his budget shortfall by tapping utility user tax revenues earmarked for the county’s unincorporated areas.

“You’ve got to fund it if you don’t want it closed,” Baca said, criticizing supervisors for “attacking the sheriff’s budget.”

Supervisor Gloria Molina castigated Baca for using the jail closure as a ploy to get more money.

“You’re not the only department that’s having to go through this,” Molina said, adding that Baca should have found ways to save before the budget was passed.

Supervisors ordered the sheriff to work with the county’s chief executive to identify cost-saving alternatives to jail closures and layoffs and report to them in September.

“We’re going to look through every bit of your budget,” Molina said. “We’re in tough times right now.”

“Go ahead,” Baca shot back. “Let’s just put everything on the table. Anytime this board has gone into the fiscal elements of any department budget, it will show substantially that we’re underfunded.”

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the sheriff could start by cutting overtime, noting that one deputy last year earned more than $235,000 in salary and overtime.

“How many hours does he have to work to earn $235,000? Is it in the best interest of the department to have someone working that many hours?” Yaroslavsky said.

Baca said overtime is necessary for public safety, that his office attempts to distribute overtime hours fairly, but that some staff seek out excessive hours.

“I don’t like it but it’s not illegal and it is productive,” Baca said. “You don’t earn overtime by sleeping.”

After the meeting, Baca said he agreed to keep the jail open with the understanding that county leaders
will allow him to use up to $6 million in surplus money from this year’s budget to cover jail costs for the next three months.

He said he was willing to work with county staff to identify savings, but that it was unlikely they would find ways to make further cuts without layoffs.

“We bought more time,” he said. “But I can’t go any deeper. All of my funding is services to the public: courts, jails, policing. What am I going to do—start turning off the lights? Stop buying gas?”

William T Fujioka, the county’s chief executive, said the sheriff may be able to access the county’s utility user tax revenue funds, about $190.7 million, although much of that money is for one-time expenses. But many other departments that have made deep cuts in recent weeks would also benefit from the money,

Fujioka said county leaders will have to weigh their interests against the sheriff’s.

“We’re cutting library staff and hours for pools—no one has a lock on that money,” Fujioka said.

Baca has made good on previous threats to close jails. In mid-2002, forced to cut his budget during a crisis in county finances, Baca began wide-scale early releases, saying that he was unwilling to cut on-the-street deputies. Over the next four years, nearly 200,000 inmates were released early, the vast majority walking out after serving no more than 10% of their sentences.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske reporting from the County Hall of Administration

Bacaletter  Read Baca's letter to L.A. County Supervisors

Related stories from the archives:

Releasing inmates early has a costly human toll

Early release rules to be revised