LA County

LA County Approves Record Budget After Forcing Cutbacks, Threatening Layoffs

The sheriff's department had been expected to be hardest hit with layoffs, with 457 employees in the custody division highlighted at risk during the board's last budget discussions.

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Los Angeles County seems prepared to avoid layoffs of county employees over the next 12 months, as the Board of Supervisors approved changes Tuesday to increase the county's planned spending to a record $37.6 billion for the 2020-21 fiscal year, $2.7 billion higher than anticipated in June.

Acting CEO Fesia Davenport, who recently replaced longtime CEO Sachi Hamai, said revenue losses were now estimated to be lower than originally forecast.

"Despite significant economic pressure, the large and growing needs of the public during the COVID pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn, this is a balanced budget that protects the public health of county residents, it embraces racial equity, it supports justice reform through accountability and alternatives to incarceration, and maintains service levels in vital programs through preservation of jobs which were targeted for cuts in our budget in June," Davenport told the board.

Though county departments were asked to cut at least 8% from their budgets during earlier planning and Davenport mentioned "belt tightening," proposed overall spending is higher than in any prior year. That is due in part to a host of demands related to COVID-19, but many other programs slated to be cut have been restored at the urging of board members and new initiatives are also included.

Davenport said the outlook for funding from various federal, state and tax sources had improved since June. Additional funding came from "funding previously set aside for the sheriff's department, implementation of organizational efficiencies and departmental savings," according to the letter.

However, more than $615 million of the money used to close an anticipated deficit came from dollars not spent in the prior year, according to Davenport's letter to the board.

For the year that ended June 30, the county had nearly $2.2 billion left in its general fund account, an even higher total than expected when June forecasts were made.

The sheriff's department had been expected to be hardest hit with layoffs, with 457 employees in the custody division highlighted at risk during the board's last budget discussions.

For the first time, we hear from Chief Leslie Ramirez. John Cadiz Klemack reports Sept. 29, 2020.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva repeatedly said he needed $400 million more than the $3.4 billion originally allocated to meet all the needs of his department and threatened to close patrol stations and make other unpopular cuts to make ends meet.

Instead of laying off employees, Villanueva will be able to fill new positions, according to the calculations of the CEO's office.

The department will get at least $86 million in additional funding -- including for a long-awaited roll-out of body-worn cameras. Some of those dollars were previously frozen by the board in an effort to push Villanueva to find ways to cut overtime and save money.

"By using this funding now, and through savings achieved through attrition, the department can avert potential layoffs and retain deputy sheriff and custody assistant trainees who recently complete the training academy," the CEO's office said in an email Monday to City News Service.

"The Chief Executive Office continues to work closely with the department to address longstanding budget issues."

Davenport warned the board Tuesday that, "We are not quite out of the woods yet."

Davenport cited high unemployment rates -- which could drive demand for more services -- lower interest rates and a potential hit to property tax revenues as concerns. She also highlighted the county's dependence on the federal government.

Fall is historically one of the most dangerous times of the year for wildfires in California. Video broadcast Tuesday Sept. 29, 2020 on Today in LA.

"We continue, however, to advocate for crucial federal relief to enable us to sustain our work providing vital services to our 10 million residents as the COVID-19 crisis continues," Davenport said.

A total of 137 child support services employee and small numbers of workers in various other departments have also been saved from layoffs under the adjusted budget.

Other significant proposed changes to the budget include:
-- $374.6 million for COVID-19 testing, tracing and medical sheltering;
-- an additional $120 million for housing through Project Roomkey and Housing for Health;
-- $73 million for the Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative; and
-- another $53.5 million for the county's Rainy Day Fund, which now totals $695.9 million.

Board members highlighted their own spending priorities and favorite programs, and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas threatened to pull funding from the sheriff's department.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she is committed to finding more money for the fire department and looks forward to working with Villanueva in managing his department's deficit.

"Public safety remains one of the highest priorities," Barger said. "This also includes our fire department.

"During the last election, voters rejected a ballot initiative to provide additional funding. At the same time, costs continue to exceed the rate of property tax growth. This will have to be addressed."

Supervisor Hilda Solis noted that the county redirected dollars in the sheriff's department budget to support the Homeless Outreach Services and Mental Evaluation teams that rely on specially trained deputies and clinicians who partner with deputies to deescalate situations and connect homeless and mentally ill people with resources.

"This is definitely a better approach, to pair a deputy with a trained clinician," Solis said.

A series of wildfires continues to burn across Northern California, where at least three people have been killed and several homes destroyed since the weekend.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she was pleased by the $72 million allocated to alternatives to incarceration.

"I am very pleased to see the Alternatives to Incarceration Initiative launch with such strong leadership and significant funding," Kuehl said.

"Innovative programs are needed to address longstanding racial inequities that disproportionately incarcerate people who need treatment and housing. LA County can make communities healthier and safer with a different, research-based approach."

Supervisor Janice Hahn had abstained from voting on adopting the budget in June, saying it didn't "meet the demands of the moment."

Tuesday, she said she was proud to support the revised budget.

"We talked a lot about justice reform and, to me, this is putting our money where our mouths are,'' Hahn said. ''I'm confident that this is only the beginning and we'll continue to make these important investments in budgets to come."

After the budget vote, Ridley-Thomas previewed a motion, co-authored with Hahn, that could pull $23.9 million out of the sheriff's department budget and use it to fund other security services, including possibly employing unarmed crisis responders.

"The sheriff's department recently decided to curtail the parks service bureau entirely. While this leaves a gap in park security services, this board has an opportunity to rethink its public safety models and consider incorporation of alternative crisis response and community input," Ridley-Thomas said.

That motion, certain to generate push back from Villanueva, who could not immediately be reached for comment, is scheduled to be considered in two weeks.

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