Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett is calling for a study on how well Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten manage their departments compared with other counties, a request the lawmen have received coolly.
Bennett said the public needs information on how the departments can improve their operating efficiency and make budget cuts without harming public safety.
The comparison, by a consulting firm with expertise in public safety programs and spending, would be “money well spent for us to obtain objective expertise on this subject,” Bennett stated in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.
Such a study is necessary, the supervisor says, because the sheriff and district attorney say they are so underfunded they cannot adequately perform their jobs.
He will ask supervisors Tuesday to approve looking into a study, including how much it would cost and how long it would take.
“Given that they have probably the most generous funding in California, we ought to compare our staffing levels with comparable counties so we can get an idea as to whether their allegations are accurate or not,” Bennett said.
A sheriff’s spokesman scoffed at Bennett’s request, calling it an attempt to divert attention from a beef between public safety managers and supervisors over funding levels.
Undersheriff Craig Husband said a genuine effort to increase efficiency would look at the entire county, not just two agencies. “This is a political thing,” Husband said. “He is trying to divert attention from the core issue, which is protecting public safety.”
Bennett’s request is the latest move in an increasingly bitter dispute over how much general fund money should be dedicated to four public safety departments, including the sheriff and district attorney.
Law enforcement is slated to receive a 3.7% increase in funding for the coming fiscal year, while all other county departments are earmarked for no increase or reduced funding.
However, the undersheriff said that is not enough to keep up with the spiraling costs of salaries, benefits, equipment and services.
Costs are going up 17% overall, leaving the department with a $10-million shortfall, Husband said. Brooks has said he has no choice but to close two jails and lay off 100 sworn and civilian employees to make up the difference, unless supervisors agree to give him more money.
Totten has said he may have to lay off prosecutors to close a $2.8-million budget gap.
Both men have said they have already looked for places to make cuts that would not affect public services but have been unable to find any.
Both have threatened to take the issue to court, contending the Board of Supervisors is violating a public safety funding law.
Meanwhile, the county is facing a $15-million shortfall for the 2003-04 budget cycle. That does not include possible reductions in state and federal funding, which could increase the budget gap to as much as $25 million.
A Totten spokesman said the district attorney was willing to work with Bennett in putting a proposal together.
But Totten also wants an audit of financial books to look into allegations the county has diverted $57 million intended for public safety budgets back into the general fund, Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Harris said.
“That seems to be a very significant allegation and worthy of investigation,” Harris said.
Auditor Controller Christine Cohen has previously stated that no money was diverted, but Harris said that “might be a matter of interpretation.”
The analysis that Bennett wants would look at such areas as staffing, equipment and services provided compared with similar-sized counties.
“It seems it’s time to examine it in detail,” Bennett said. “How many other counties have four helicopters? How many have the management staff that we do? Those are the kinds of things we will look at.”
Husband said the sheriff will put his management decisions up against any other county or department.
“The fact is we have probably the flattest management of any county,” he said. “Only 5% of our employees are managers. The county executive officer and the Board of Supervisors’ offices are probably a lot higher than that.”
While the sheriff will not oppose a study, it may not be necessary in the long run, Husband said. “The best efficiency study comes every four years when the voters reelect the sheriff,” he said.