By ELIZABETH MARCELLINO
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department closed the fiscal year ended June 30, 2021, with a $22.2 million surplus, despite exceeding its budget for overtime by more than $50 million, according to a report to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
It was the first time the department closed the year without a deficit since the 2016-17 fiscal year, and it did so even after repaying a $63.4 million loan provided by the county to cover an earlier deficit.
The report by county Chief Executive Officer Fesia Davenport on the sheriff’s department’s $3.6 billion budget was received and filed along with a host of other agenda items without any comment by members of the board.
The result was a surprise given that the board was told in June to expect a deficit from the department.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva and his management team’s success in cutting overtime by nearly $100 million from prior year levels was the primary driver of the surplus, according to Davenport.
Yet overtime still totaled $180.4 million, an overrun of more than $50 million or nearly 40%.
Davenport said other measures taken by the department to reduce spending were one-time in nature and could not be duplicated in future years to keep the budget in balance.
Some of the overtime savings, for example, were the result of the pandemic shutdown and temporary reassignments that would not have been possible to implement during normal operations.
Courts were shuttered for some time, the jail population was dramatically reduced, and large public events requiring security were non-existent during parts of the 2020-21 fiscal year.
Even though the county has lifted a hard hiring freeze for other departments, it plans to maintain that freeze and other spending controls for the sheriff’s department. That includes holding back $143.7 million in provisional funding outside of the department’s immediate control.
“It is recommended that these controls remain in place until such a time that LASD stabilizes its budget and implements a sound sustainable budget deficit mitigation plan,” Davenport wrote in her letter to the board.
The board and Villanueva have been at odds almost from when he took office. Shortly after he was sworn in as sheriff in December 2018, it was discovered that Villanueva had rehired a deputy fired for misconduct.
Since then, Villanueva has repeatedly pushed back against the board’s authority — which is limited when it comes to an elected official like the sheriff — and chosen to make his case to the public rather than the supervisors.
Disagreements over his handling of deputy discipline, internal cliches or gangs, vaccine mandates, and most recently, vaccine testing, have been a nearly constant source of friction and have sometimes resulted in legal claims and counterclaims.
The budget is one of the few levers of control the board has over the sheriff.
The department has identified a number of funding shortfalls, even as some advocates call for cuts to sheriff’s services in order to fund alternative, community-based programs.
As of June 29, 2021, the department had 17,095 budgeted positions, including 10,320 sworn staff. Of those, 16,327 were filled.
The department has funding for four academy classes this year with 87 recruits per class, but says it needs to hire and train more deputies to address open positions, turnover and long-term leave.
State funding for trial court security and custody for inmates awaiting transfer to state prison doesn’t cover the actual cost of those services, according to the department.
That claim is backed up by the county’s auditor-controller, who calculates the cost of “prisoner maintenance” at $162.82 per day while California reimburses the county at the rate of $93.54 per day. During an earlier moratorium on transfers, the number of inmates awaiting transport to prison totaled more than 3,900 at its peak.
In what could be a more highly contested issue, the department is also seeking more money to hire additional jail staff, pointing to an increase in the jail population and the need for a higher level of care to comply with various legal settlements.
The board is committed to a “Care First, Jails Last” policy that relies on diversion and decreasing the pretrial jail population over time.
The sheriff’s department is also looking for more funding to cover services related to rising crime rates, increasing homelessness and the fight against illegal cannabis production and sale.
The CEO has been working with sheriff’s department management for years to find solutions to structural deficits, but Davenport says she has yet to receive a mitigation plan first requested by the board in 2019.
“The mitigation plan should ensure funding priority is given to statutorily mandated or `core mission’ services and include, at a minimum, budget-balancing reduction proposals that are in alignment with the county’s strategic plan (and) goals,” Davenport wrote.
That includes eliminating duplicative or underperforming programs, streamlining divisions, units and services to find efficiencies and reducing layers of management and administration, in addition to ensuring full cost recovery for services provided to the state or contract cities, she said.
While this report has been postponed multiple times and was put on the agenda for one of the last meetings of the year without any formal presentation or discussion, Davenport indicated it would be her last such report to the board unless a new request was made.