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Supervisors order sheriff not to close any stations

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors unanimously voted May 12 to direct Sheriff Alex Villanueva to immediately cease his plans to close the Altadena and Marina del Rey stations. 

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the board called for “a more transparent, collaborative” process of addressing the sheriff’s budget deficit, with Supervisor Janice Hahn calling closing stations “an absolute last resort.”

Villanueva last week said he would shut down the Parks Bureau and the two patrol stations, among other cuts designed to reduce a projected budget deficit of $89 million.

Under Villanueva’s plan, beginning July 1, patrol deputies in those two neighborhoods would report to the Crescenta Valley and South Los Angeles stations, respectively.

Villanueva used most of a weekly briefing May 4 set up to update the public on his department’s response to the coronavirus to litigate his disagreement with the Board of Supervisors over his budget.

The county approved a $35.5 billion recommended spending plan in April that is largely a placeholder given the many changes that will have to be factored in before it is adopted in June and finalized in September.

That budget includes $3.5 billion for Villanueva’s department, which the sheriff said is $400 million short of “the actual cost of providing public safety.”

The sheriff asked reporters to “imagine you have a $4,000 monthly budget, but you’re only given $3,500 in income.”

That is a reality many households and businesses are facing as Los Angeles County residents lose jobs and businesses close due to stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

However, the sheriff’s budget deficit predates the pandemic, as the department closed its last fiscal year June 30, 2019, with a $63 million shortfall.

Villanueva says it is a structural deficit that dates much further back than that. He cited years of deficits run up by his predecessors that he says were ultimately covered by reallocating funds set aside in a line item for supplies and services.

But the supervisors, who are responsible for the sheriff’s department budget had something else to say on the matter. 

“These station closures were announced without any vetting or advance notice, validation of cost savings, or assessment of impact on public safety,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “As a result, our communities are rightly concerned — as is this board. 

“The Sheriff’s Department must achieve the necessary cost savings and budget curtailments needed to address the Department’s deficit and the county’s revenue shortfall in a more transparent, collaborative and democratic way without jeopardizing service to our communities.”

Supervisor Kathryn Barger also was critical of the proposed cuts.

“The public safety and security of our communities is critically important, now more than ever, given the public health crisis created by COVID-19,” Barger said. “I am hopeful that through today’s board action, the sheriff will work with the county chief executive office to identify more appropriate budget measures that will not impact our local communities.

“I remain committed to ensuring that the Sheriff’s Department maintains its core mission of public safety and meets the essential needs of residents and businesses throughout Los Angeles County.”

This year, the board chose to withhold $143 million — once allocated for supplies and services — to try to force the sheriff’s hand in cutting back overtime and trimming other department fat. Nearly 60% of the withheld funds were released last week, but that fell short of satisfying the sheriff.

Villanueva directly defied another request by the board, which tied the release of those dollars to cutting academy classes for new deputies from 12 to four. Only four classes were included in the sheriff’s budget for the year.

“We’re going to reduce our academy classes from 12 to eight,” the sheriff told reporters, claiming that to do otherwise would result in hiring 160 fewer deputies annually.

“These are line jobs … these are not positions that we can just wish away because they’re inconvenient,” the sheriff said.

In addition to closing patrol situations to save $12.2 million, Villanueva outlined others cuts to generate big savings.

Eliminating the Parks Bureau and having responsibility for parks security revert to local stations will save $32.5 million, while eliminating the Community Partnerships Bureau will save an estimated $30 million, according to the sheriff.

“All this is designed to kill overtime,” the sheriff told reporters. “We really don’t have a lot of fat to trim.”

He pushed county officials to release proposed budgets from every department.

“The public needs to be able to see every single county department … so they can make a decision for themselves … how the Board of Supervisors is representing their priorities,” Villanueva said.Asked for comment, county CEO Sachi Hamai released a statement that said: “All of our county departments are submitting plans for painful cuts that may be needed in response to the exceptional economic challenges we are facing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d like to encourage the sheriff to continue working on his plans in a way that emphasizes public safety for all residents, including those in the unincorporated communities.”

“These station closures were announced without any vetting or advance notice, validation of cost savings, or assessment of impact on public safety.” 

— County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas

Staff and Wire Reports