LOS ANGELES -- Sheriff Lee Baca came under fire from Los Angeles County officials Tuesday for suggesting he may need to close Men's Central Jail and a second lockup due to budget restraints.
Baca told the Los Angeles Times that closing the downtown jail might be needed to close an estimated $72 million budget gap in the department's overall $2.5 billion budget. That prediction was met with consternation by top county officials, who said Baca's comments were premature.
"I think it's particularly in light of the sheriff's comments that everyone understands that the board has not had a discussion on anything ... on what our actual numbers are," Supervisor Don Knabe said.
"It's somewhat unfair to start (calling this a) closing-jails and taking-deputies-off-the-street kind of a situation because this board has been very supportive of that department, but that conversation has not taken place," Knabe said.
William Fujioka, the county's chief executive, asked county department heads to look at ways to cut their budgets by 5 percent.
Fujioka told The Times that the reductions in the sheriff's budget, still in early drafts, do not include requests to reduce spending by $72 million, as Baca contends.
Baca acknowledged that closing Men's Central Jail might be avoided, but he said the sheriff's department cut $150 million from its budget one year during the 2001-02 recession.
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Jailers have said the facility -- built in 1963 and housing about 6,700 of the county's 18,000 inmates -- is outdated, hard to patrol and costs about $50 million a year to operate.
Fujioka and the Supervisors on Tuesday defended having departments heads strive for 5 percent cuts.
"I think I want to reinforce to every department head -- including the sheriff -- that the exercise of the 5 percent curtailment I think is a healthy thing. We all have to prepare ourselves and brace ourselves for these cuts," Supervisor Gloria Molina said.
"At the end of the day, we are probably going to have to look at cuts across the board," she said, adding that no department should consider its services more important than another's. "I just want to reinforce that with anyone who thinks that they're above or beyond even looking at their own budget."
Fujioka said department heads needed to streamline operations before gutting programs.
"I would hope that before a department addresses or eliminates their core, critical services, they look at every other reasonable alternative first," Fujioka said.
"We can achieve some of the budget targets by actually doing things a little smarter and more efficient without cutting programs," he said.