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O.C. sheriff warns of fallout from budget cuts

When supervisors this week went to slice $1.2 billion from Orange County’s budget for the coming fiscal year, they tried to spread the pain from one end of county government to the other. But the $28 million that is being cut from law enforcement will be impossible to hide, says Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.

Hutchens said investigators will be lost, emergency call dispatchers eliminated, crime lab positions slashed and an entire floor of the women’s jail sealed off.

“To think that we can possibly absorb all of those cuts without an impact to the public is not going to happen,” Hutchens said Wednesday. “You can keep it going for so long, but there comes a point where things fall off the plate when you don’t have enough personnel.”

That point may come this year, Hutchens said, when the public begins to feel the effect of up to 50 positions slated for elimination.

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The sheriff said investigators are on the chopping block, which foreshadows slower follow-up on crimes, a point of concern in homicides -- which have the best shot of being solved within the first 48 hours. Hutchens said about five forensic scientists will be laid off, slowing down analyses of lab submissions. Currently, there is no backlog for sexual assault cases, but Hutchens warned that could change next year.

The department probably will seal off an entire floor of the Women’s Central Jail, and other county lockups, which mostly house male prisoners, will have to absorb female inmates.

The Sheriff’s Department has been hurt by sharp declines in revenue from the state’s half-cent public safety sales tax, which accounts for about half of the department’s annual funding, Hutchens said. Counties across the state have been buffeted by a drop in sales tax money and a steady decline in property tax revenue.

To reduce costs at the Sheriff’s Department, officials have already implemented some savings, including deferring equipment purchases, eliminating 150 positions normally filled by retirees and senior citizens, and cutting overtime hours by 17%.

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Although some jobs have been marked for possible elimination, department officials said they are scrambling to determine which positions should be chopped. Hutchens said the department will look at further reducing overtime to save cash. Department officials are also hoping to relocate people whose positions are slated for elimination to jobs that have been filled by paying overtime to deputies, said John McDonald, department spokesman.

Hutchens is also negotiating a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house federal detainees in county jails, which are at their lowest inmate population in five years. The agreement could bring in an additional $18 million a year.

Hutchens said that although Orange County enjoys a relatively low crime rate, she feared it could worsen if the economy continues to slump.

“I would like to say that won’t happen, and we haven’t seen an increase yet,” she said, “but next year, we will see an increase unless we take steps to address the problem now.”

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com


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