OC Officials Weigh Budget Shortfall Options

September 3, 2020 Updated: September 3, 2020

The Orange County Board of Supervisors and county law enforcement officials on Sept. 1 discussed the ramifications of a $290 million budget shortfall due to a decrease in revenue resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

District Attorney Todd Spitzer and Sheriff Don Barnes attended the public meeting to request additional funding for their departments.

Spitzer said his staff needed about $680,000 for a Conviction Integrity Unit to review prior murder convictions due to a recently passed state law that tightens the definition of felony murder.

He said the review could affect hundreds of people who did not actively participate in any killing, but were present at the time and co-conspirators in lesser crimes.

“We have to review all these prior murder convictions, and the work is tremendous, and we’re going to actually have to dismiss quite a [number] of murder charges against individuals who are presently incarcerated,” he said.

Chief Assistant Attorney Sean Nelson also spoke in front of the supervisors and addressed the estimated $84 million decrease in Prop. 172 funding, a half-cent sales tax dedicated to the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office.

Nelson said the decrease could eventually affect hiring new people to fill vacant positions, a process that can take six months.

“If the funds end up short then we may not be able to finalize job offers,” he said.

Nelson said even though March and April revenues were very low, they were much higher in June than expected, and exceeded revenue from the same time last year.

However, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said the increase in funding this summer was an “artificial bump” from reopening the county and may not indicate future revenue levels.

Instead of insisting on expanding the budget, Spitzer and Nelson agreed to continue to work with county CEO Frank Kim to assess future revenue for their department.

Sheriff Barnes said the budget is also missing about $20 million to fund security at courthouses. The program is mandated but not funded by the state, he said.

“We have been raising this issue for years regarding court security and equities. For many years we have been disproportionately shorted,” said Barnes.

Bartlett said she previously met with the California Chief Justice to discuss the issue, but was told the state also had budgeting problems, and it was up to the county to make the required cuts.

“We’re getting fewer and fewer dollars every year to fund this particular function within our county. So it’s a little frustrating,” she said.

During the public comments section of the meeting, a large number of individuals who said they represented the “people’s budget” asked supervisors to defund the Sheriff’s Department and jails, while demanding more investment in public health and public housing.

Following these statements, Spitzer praised the supervisors’ commitment to law enforcement and providing a wide range of services to the less fortunate in the county.

Spitzer said this was why Orange County had not seen the unrest that other regions of the country have experienced. However, he stressed the need to continue to be open to future conversations with the public.

“We would be remiss if we did not understand today that we have a responsibility to shift,” he said. “We have a responsibility to listen to the distrust of law enforcement and the distrust of prosecutors, and we need to continue to do something about it.”

County CEO Kim said the county still had around $700 million in reserves at the beginning of January after withdrawing $30 million, but is hesitant to withdraw too much.

Another major concern is the expiration of the county’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding in January 2021, he said.

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