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Sheriff Could Save $22 Million a Year, Audit Says

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department could save up to $22 million a year by trimming management staff, closing unneeded operations, and putting medical and food services at its jails out to bid, according to the most extensive audit of the department in memory.

“Significant improvements are required,” concluded the report by the private accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick, which was released Monday.

Traditionally, the department has been allowed broad discretion in deciding how it spends money, but it has come under increased scrutiny in recent months as the county’s dire shortage of jail beds has prompted demands for tighter financial reins.

Although the potential savings spotlighted by the private auditing firm represent only a small fraction of the department’s $1.1-billion budget, the money could translate into quite a few extra jail beds. For example, the 1,000-bed Mira Loma jail in Lancaster was closed by the sheriff in 1994 to save about $12 million--a cost that easily would have been covered by the auditor’s recommended savings.

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Monday’s report marks the second of three sheriff’s audits that were ordered by the County Board of Supervisors last fall after a Times investigation that highlighted spending snafus at the department. But this latest audit is far more wide-ranging and critical than the previous review conducted by county auditors in April, offering 38 recommendations for reform and detailing substantial savings. The third and final phase of the county-ordered reviews--this one also to be conducted in-house--is due in coming weeks.

While the department fell “well within law enforcement industry practices” in most areas when compared with other major police agencies, the report found that it had failed to adequately invest in long-term solutions for unique, pressing problems in Los Angeles County--such as finding more jail beds to stem the early release of tens of thousands of convicted county inmates.

“Considering the magnitude of the [department’s] budget and the wide range of service that must be provided, the department needs an improved budgeting process and tools,” the audit found. “In the era of increasing demand for accountability in government, the department should be able to demonstrate that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky said it “took a lot of guts” for Sheriff Sherman Block to cooperate with outside auditors in their nearly three-month review. He said he now wants to move quickly in considering reforms that could save tens of millions of dollars.

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“I don’t think we have a minute to waste, any more than we have a penny to waste,” he said.

The board is expected to hold a hearing in the next few weeks on the audit’s findings.

The report offered critical assessments of everything from staffing levels to laundry operations and food services. Some county officials saw it as a refutation of Block’s long-held stance that he had no choice but to close several jail facilities in recent years because the county board had not given him the money that he said the department needed.

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“This report shows that he has the means within his department right now to fix many of these problems,” said a county budget official who asked not to be identified.

Sheriff’s officials concurred with most of the findings in their official response, adding that many of the suggested reforms are already being implemented.

For example, the department is requesting bids from outside vendors to provide food services in the jails and is considering a similar move with medical services for inmates--both offering potentially significant savings, according to auditors. In addition, sheriff’s officials said, the department has been increasing the number of civilians working in the jails.

“We agreed with virtually everything they recommended,” said Undersheriff Jerry Harper. “I think that everybody is interested [in ensuring] that we are operating as efficiently as we can, and that’s understandable. . . . We will take the recommendations very, very seriously.”

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But he added that the reforms probably will be gradual. “If you read any of these audits, none of the savings are upfront. All of the auditors recognize that it will take the department up to five or seven years to get into a position where the savings will be realized,” Harper said.

The audit noted that the Sheriff’s Department ranks as “one of the largest, most complex municipal law enforcement organizations in the world,” using more than 13,000 sworn and civilian personnel to police more than 2,600 square miles of unincorporated area, 39 contract cities, an 18,000-inmate jail operation and the county court system.

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Given the enormity of that task, the department has generally “managed its operations within its budgetary constraints,” auditors found, but key reforms must be implemented if the county hopes to address four critical long-term needs: finding more jail beds, improving the law enforcement information system, upgrading its crime lab and expanding its stations.

Toward that end, the auditors recommended that the department make its management structure more efficient, cutting back on manager-to-staff ratios that appear bloated in some cases. In particular, the report found that commanders--the fifth-highest-ranking officers at the department--appear to be “underutilized.”

In some areas, auditors concluded that the department seems to have gone backward in its own reform efforts.

A recent reorganization in the Office of Administrative Services, expanding its duties to include things like fleet management, “appears to have fragmented the mission of OAS and diluted the focus on two key needs"--information technology and budget/personnel, the report found.

The auditors were frustrated in their efforts to understand the $40.2-million food operation at the jails, finding that the department could not provide detailed breakdowns on how much was spent at each facility or on the cost of inmate meals versus staff meals. Without such data, the audit found, it was difficult to assess the operation’s cost-effectiveness.

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Even so, the auditors recommended several key reforms, including allowing private vendors to serve meals, making better use of jail storage space for food, and closing several warehouses and a jail bakery. Savings on these items alone would total millions of dollars, the audit said.

Auditors also endorsed the idea of phasing out sworn personnel in favor of civilian workers in various operations, and said that those savings of up to $8.8 million a year could be even more lucrative than estimated by a previous state audit. So far, the latest audit found, the effort to develop a plan for hiring more civilians has not been adequately coordinated departmentwide.

Times staff writer Josh Meyer contributed to this story.


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