OC sheriff, DA's office asked to make more budget cuts

SANTA ANA — County officials are asking he Orange County Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office to make steep cuts under the $5.4 billion county budget proposal released today.

The spending plan for the 2010-2011 fiscal year includes a $438 million budget for the Sheriff's Department, down from the $475 million for this fiscal year. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has said previously that she had already cut her budget to the bone.

"The sheriff has done a great job of managing the budget,'' said Frank Kim, director of the county's budget office. "But we will have to ask her to do more.''

Sheriff's officials are hoping to increase revenue by $20 million if they successfully negotiate a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to rent empty beds in the county's jail in Orange for people on federal immigration holds, said sheriff's spokesman Ryan Burris. Sheriff's officials
expected the $37 million shortfall, which is why they are trying to arrange for the "beds for feds'' program, Burris added.

The budget for the District Attorney's Office would be reduced from $115 million this year to just under $110 million in the coming year.

Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, a former county treasurer, said "public protection'' accounts for 49.5 percent of the county's costs.

"Public protection is becoming the ulcer that is growing and pushing everything else out,'' Moorlach said. "The best thing we can do right now is we're putting pressure on the district attorney and sheriff to glide down in costs.

"That doesn't mean we're anti-public safety. It's just, hey, we need to protect the integrity of the whole, and this is where we're hemorrhaging. It has nothing to do with public safety concerns. It has to do with accounting concerns. How do we do it all after plucking so many feathers off the bird and
the bird still has to fly?''

Even with the economy showing signs of strengthening, the long-term forecast for county services will still be tough because of the rising cost of employee pensions, Moorlach said.

Still, Orange County made early cuts when the economy began faltering, leaving it in better shape than some of its neighbors, Moorlach said.

"So we're not flying at 5,000 feet and looking at the Sierras straight ahead, which is the case for some of our neighbors,'' Moorlach said.We've been really, methodically, regularly reducing and scaling back.''

The Board of Supervisors cut the budget by 18 percent last year, Moorlach said.

"We talked about it last year -- what do we do for an encore? How long do we stretch our reserves?'' Moorlach said.

Orange County started the fiscal year with $202 million in reserves and is expected to finish the year with $197.5 million in reserves, Kim said. The proposed budget for the coming year projects spending $26.7 million of its reserves, he said.

County officials recently met with three credit-rating agencies, two of which reported the county's credit rating will not change, Kim said. The third agency has yet to weigh in, he added.

"We see that as a good sign,'' Kim said. "We're in pretty good shape, we think.''

However, the credit ratings could be affected -- impacting the ability to borrow money -- if the county dips too deeply into its reserve fund, Kim said.

Kim predicted the typical Orange County resident will not see a dramatic difference in the level of services they receive under the proposed budget.

However, there could be trouble ahead if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed cutbacks in social welfare spending are adopted, he said. That would dump the burden onto the counties, meaning supervisors will have to find more money to pay for food stamps, mental health facilities and other social-safety-net costs, Kim said.

Hearings on the budget will be held June 15-16, with the board scheduled to vote June 29.