Board Slams Baca for Plan to Close Jail

A proposal by Sheriff Lee Baca to shutter one of the five county-run jails met with strong opposition Tuesday from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which urged him to find other ways of closing a $25 million budget gap.

In a sometimes-heated debate, Baca insisted that absent additional funding from the county, he had no choice but to close the jail.

"It's not what anyone wants to do. I don't want to shut a jail," Baca said.

Responding to suggestions by the board that he make more administrative cuts, he added, "I'm so thin at the top ... I refuse to dip any further."

"The truth is that budget cutting in municipal governments is painful," he said.

Baca raised the possibility of closing the 1,600-bed North Facility at the Peter J. Pitchess Detention Center in a letter sent to the board Friday, in response to a request by the county to cut an additional $25 million of his $2.5 billion budget -- $1.2 billion of which is funded by the county.

"People who commit crime are not afraid of jails. They are afraid of cops on the street. I'm not going to take cops off the street," Baca said.

Board members insisted there must be other areas that could be cut, suggesting administrative services, duplication of services with other law enforcement agencies and excessive overtime as possibilities.

"When the department wants to find money, it finds it," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

Yaroslavsky said that when the sheriff's department wanted to send a detail of officers to President Barack Obama's inauguration in January, it found a way to fund the trip by shifting other expenses and ended up saving about $500,000 to $1 million over four days.

"Why can't you do that all year round?" Yaroslavsky asked.

"We can do anything for two or three days," Baca responded, saying it was unrealistic to try to make similar cuts throughout the year.

Yaroslavsky also questioned the sheriff's overtime expense.

"Your top overtime winner received $235,775," mostly in overtime, the supervisor claimed, adding that hundreds of deputies were earning more than 70 percent of their pay in overtime.

Baca said the example was an anomaly, based on one custody deputy who was always available at the last minute to fill in for others calling in sick. He agreed that it would be ideal if overtime was spread evenly among employees but said the realities of managing staff needs created some outcomes that seem on their face to be "ridiculous."

The sheriff maintained that the department's $85 million annual overtime budget was "grossly underfunded."

The supervisors were also unhappy with the timing of Baca's announcement and questioned why he didn't raise the possibility of a jail closing with the CEO during earlier budget negotiations.

"There was plenty of time to do that budget waltz before," Supervisor Gloria Molina said during a testy back-and-forth exchange with Baca.

"You make these threats, sheriff," Molina said.

"There are no threats," Baca said.

"Now we're going to scrutinize. We're going to look through every part of it," Molina said of the sheriff's budget.

The board unanimously moved that the CEO's office sit down with the staff of the sheriff's department between now and September to try to find other savings.

"All other options must be exhausted," said Supervisor Michael Antonovich. "It would be a huge mistake to close even a portion of a jail, without considering other alternatives first."

Yaroslavsky urged Baca and his staff to go into the process with "an open mind" and use "imaginative thinking" to find savings.

"There is no fat running around," Baca insisted.

Baca's plan would release some nonviolent inmates early and transfer others to already overcrowded jails, spokesman Steve Whitmore told the Los Angeles Times last week.

The 187 people who work at the facility would be reassigned. Closing the jail would "potentially result in an increase in inmate violence and a resultant increase in the use of force," according to Baca's letter to the board.

Baca also proposed lowering bail for nonviolent offenders so they can be released early.

Baca already has cut $31.6 million from his budget, eliminating 51 vacant positions, during earlier budget negotiations for the coming fiscal year. He said he faces a $103 million "structural funding shortfall" which the department is already meeting by not filling 300 vacant positions.

Molina argued with Baca about the number of open spots, given a new crop of academy graduates.

"It just doesn't add up, Lee. It doesn't add up," she said.

Baca urged the supervisors to provide money from a utility user tax reserve, designated for the unincorporated areas of the county, to help close the gap, rather than forcing him to make additional cuts.

But if he had to, Baca remained ready to shut down the jail.

"Let me take the hits. I'll take the blame," Baca said.

"We bought time in terms of not closing" the jail, Baca said after the board hearing. He believed that the utility tax reserve, which he said totaled $181 million, was still a possibility up for discussion.

He remained adamant about his inability to find other ways to cut the department's spending, saying the board offered "no new ideas" that his staff had not already considered.

"I can't go any deeper," the sheriff said. "What am I going to do? Start turning off the lights? Stop buying replacement vehicles?"

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