Los Angeles County Curbs Sheriff’s Department Spending

October 8, 2019 Updated: October 8, 2019

In a radical move to rein in overspending, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has imposed a partial freeze on the sheriff’s department budget.

The board voted unanimously on Oct. 1 to withhold $143.7 million from the current budget as an insurance policy if Sheriff Alex Villanueva fails to pay back $63.4 million in overspent funds. Before the sheriff can regain full control of the budget, the board has stipulated that he must submit a “payment plan” to reimburse the county for the shortfall.

Meanwhile, Villanueva argued the sheriff’s department is severely underfunded. Despite a current annual budget of $3.6 billion, Villanueva pegged the cost of running the department at $300 million more than that amount.

“The county’s budget, like any public budget, is a political document that speaks to the funding priorities of each member of the board,” he said at the Oct. 1 meeting. “I want to encourage each and every one of you to commit your office to funding the true cost of providing public safety, which is approximately $3.9 billion in today’s dollars.”

Much of the deficit can be attributed to overtime pay to cover hundreds of deputy vacancies.

“We are currently the most understaffed law enforcement agency in the entire United States, with 816 sworn vacancies and a per capita deputy-to-resident ratio of 0.9 deputies for every 1,000 residents, which is two-and-a-half times less than the average of 2.5,” Villanueva said.

While the sheriff contended that the budgetary restrictions would pose a risk to public safety, the supervisors countered the freeze would affect administrative positions but not the number of deputies patrolling the streets.

The deficit at the end of the fiscal year 2019-20 totaled $90.2 million, but was adjusted with $26.8 million transferred from the county’s general fund to cover unforeseen costs of the Woolsey Fire and litigation associated with the disaster.

This isn’t the first time that supervisors have raised concerns about Villanueva’s failure to address overspending, issuing warnings in December and twice since then.

A Sept. 26 internal memo from County CEO Sachi Hamai to the five supervisors details the concerns over the mounting deficit and recommended ways to cut spending.

“Given the size of the deficit and the department’s shortfall, legitimate questions have arisen as to the department’s ability to manage its budget,” Hamai stated in the memo. “Consequently, it would be prudent to implement at deficit mitigation plan to prevent and/or substantially reduce the likelihood the department will close the [fiscal year] 2019-20 with another deficit in this order of magnitude.”

Villanueva’s overspending is more than four times higher than the deficit of less than $15 million former Sheriff Jim McDonnell left behind at the end of his last full year in office in 2018. Other L.A. County sheriffs have also run deficits, but not as high as $63.4 million.

Supervisor Hilda Solis, who called the deficit “staggering,” said the board’s intent was not to attack the Sheriff but to get the deficit under control.

“The last thing I want to see is that we are not providing the needed security and the sworn officers on the ground. I think every single one of us understands that … this is not about taking away the safety and security of our neighborhoods,” said Solis, adding that she is concerned about a rise in gang violence in East L.A., Bassett and Azusa.

“So, this is in no way a message to say that we don’t want to see cops on the beat,” she said.

Solis, who authored the motion for the spending freeze, pointed out that the county has also added funds to the sheriff department’s budget in the 2019-20 fiscal budget.

“We’re talking about $2 million in the county general funds to support the department’s recruitment effort for sheriff’s deputies, so we’re not holding back,” she said.

Solis asked for the cooperation of the sheriff’s department to curb overspending and reminded all department heads, including the sheriff, that they have a responsibility to stay within budget.

“We won’t allow for this kind of ballooning deficit to go on. We can’t,” she said.

Villanueva, who was previously a sheriff’s lieutenant, challenged his boss, Sheriff Jim McDonnell, in the California statewide general election in November 2018 and defeated him. McDonnell, who served as sheriff from December 2014 to 2018, was first incumbent in more than a century to lose the position.

Since taking over as sheriff in December 2018, Villanueva has butted heads with some board members. The battle over the budget comes in the wake of the board’s court challenge to Villanueva’s plan to rehire deputies who were fired for misconduct. The new sheriff also raised the ire of county supervisors by replacing almost all of the department’s top brass and launching a criminal investigation into allegations that the county inspector general unlawfully obtained internal records.

Inspector General Max Huntsman, who serves as a watchdog over the sheriff’s department, has accused Villanueva of lax hiring practices, requiring less rigorous background checks and polygraph tests than previous standards.

County supervisors have also criticized Villanueva for not being tough enough on accusations of misconduct and initiating fewer internal affairs investigations than his predecessor. In August, a deputy who was fired over allegations of domestic violence, and later rehired by Villanueva, was stripped of his uniform, badge and gun by a county judge.

A response to requests for comment from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department was not forthcoming at press time.