Proposal slashes L.A. County Sheriff's Department budget by $162 million

Jaclyn Cosgrove
Los Angeles County Chief Executive Sachi Hamai at a Board of Supervisors meeting in 2015. County officials have proposed a $28-billion budget for the next fiscal year, an increase of about 1%.  (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

In Los Angeles County's first proposed budget reflecting the pandemic-related economic slowdown, officials announced Thursday that public safety will bear the brunt of an overall 8% cut in spending, with the Sheriff's Department eyed for more than 400 layoffs and $162 million trimmed from its $3.3-billion budget.

Officials said the proposed cuts to the 2020-21 budget were largely due to shortfalls in sales tax funds, which have been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The "defund the police" movement was not a factor in the decision to reduce spending at the department, officials said.

“I am very disappointed to report that significant cuts in county programs and personnel will be needed as a result of the serious economic downturn caused by this ongoing public health emergency,” L.A. County Chief Executive Sachi Hamai said in a statement. “This is not the outcome any of us wants to see, especially as our county staff continues to serve with great commitment during this crisis."

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has yet to comment on the proposed budget. He has been sharply critical of budget levels, which he believes need to be at $3.9 billion to run the department effectively.

“The Sheriff’s Department is forced to run in the red because the Board of Supervisors does not prioritize public safety, and they are the ones that hold the checkbook,” Villanueva said in a virtual press conference in May.

The proposed budget cuts represent an across-the-board cut of 8% for departments financed with what is known as "net county cost," money that comes from sales tax "and other locally generated revenues," Hamai said.

Across all county departments, the budget cuts would result in the elimination of 3,251 positions — 2,596 vacant and 655 potential layoffs. No layoffs would take place before Oct. 1. The county employs more than 100,000 people.

Other hard-hit departments include the district attorney's office, which could see a $22.3-million cut and six potential layoffs; and the public defender's office, which could lose $19.8 million and suffer 35 layoffs. The county's Probation Department is expected to see a $60.7-million cut as well.

Each of these agencies will also lose dozens, and in the Sheriff's Department's case, hundreds, of jobs through the elimination of vacant positions.

The county's Department of Children and Family Services could lose $21 million but wouldn't see any layoffs. Other departments would lose a fraction of that amount. The county's Mental Health Department would lose about $4 million under the proposal and lose nine vacant positions.

Health-related departments and services make up the largest portion of the county's budget, and these agencies remain relatively unscathed under the budget proposal. The county's Department of Public Health would lose about $10 million in "net county costs" from its proposed $1.2-billion budget. Neither public health nor the county's Department of Health Services, which has an $8.6-billion budget and oversees the county's hospitals and clinics, would see layoffs.

The county anticipates losing about $307 million in state realignment money used for critical child welfare and social services departments, along with essential services provided by the Departments of Health Services, Mental Health and Public Health. To close that gap, Hamai's office recommended using one-time funding set aside in departmental trust accounts.

The budget, which will be presented to the Board of Supervisors for budget deliberations on Monday, "represents some of the most challenging fiscal decisions in recent county history," Hamai said.

The cuts are needed to address a projected $935.3-million budget gap, mostly due to sharp revenue declines as the county spends millions responding to and reopening during the pandemic, Hamai said.

Because the largest share, 40%, of net county costs go to the county’s public safety departments, including the Sheriff’s Department, these departments are most heavily affected, Hamai said. These departments also receive a large share of the county's money from state realignment sales tax revenue, or AB 109 money, which has declined sharply as well.

The proposed budget, scheduled to presented to the board on Monday, is not the final county budget.

Although the county's fiscal year starts July 1, Hamai will present a "supplemental budget" to the Board of Supervisors in September. The supplemental budget usually addresses whatever changes need to be made in that year's budget, a process that will likely be far more significant this year due to the pandemic.