The ongoing conflict between Los Angeles County’s most powerful elected officials has ramped up dramatically, with members of the Board of Supervisors seeking to curtail Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s spending authority amid concerns over his department’s ballooning budget shortfall.
The board, which has previously clashed with the sheriff over personnel and oversight, could force Villanueva into a spending “mitigation plan” to reduce a $63-million deficit, a fiscal excess largely fueled by deputy overtime.
The board’s effort, if adopted next week, underscores how much relations have soured between the supervisors and the unconventional sheriff, who upset the incumbent during an election last fall but came to office lacking executive experience in law enforcement.
Observers said Thursday that the budget fight — which Villanueva dismissed as “political grandstanding” — is an unprecedented rebuke by the supervisors, who control the county’s overall $30-billion budget but are typically deferential to the county’s top cop.
“Historically, every sheriff knew that the board has the ultimate authority to withhold funds from his budget, but no sheriff ever let a dispute get to the point where the board had to exercise that authority,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former supervisor and L.A. City Council member who served four decades as a public official. “Apparently, there is a new sheriff in town.”
The effort, led by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, demands that the department consent to a hiring freeze for nonessential personnel as well as a “payment plan” to reimburse the county for its excess spending. The supervisors also want the sheriff to agree to establish controls to prevent future deficits.
The extraordinary proposal, which had been rumored for weeks, calls on Villanueva to do so without reducing the numbers of uniformed deputies assigned to public safety in the county’s unincorporated areas — and in the dozens of cities that pay for the department’s patrols.
“The Sheriff’s Department has a constitutional responsibility to provide public safety,” the motion states. “However, that responsibility must be discharged under the same budgetary guidelines that apply to its sister county departments, many of whom are also mandated by law to provide various critical services.”
The motion adds, “This is true regardless of whether the department head is elected by L.A. County voters or appointed by the Board of Supervisors.”
That last statement is recognition that, as an independently elected sheriff, Villanueva enjoys broad authority over the department’s management. But that hasn’t stopped the supervisors from feuding with the sheriff over staffing decisions — and now spending.
In August, a judge overturned Villanueva’s controversial decision to reinstate a deputy who had been fired for violating department policies on domestic violence and lying — a dispute that sparked a rare legal battle with the supervisors.
The legal case resulted from the highly unusual step taken by the supervisors to sue Villanueva and the department, saying the rehiring had been unlawful.
More recently, Villanueva has faced criticism for what county Inspector General Max Huntsman has called “very troubling” hiring practices, including scaling back the scope of background checks and relaxing polygraph exams. The sheriff meanwhile launched an investigation into allegations that the oversight agency unlawfully obtained internal records.
In an interview Thursday, Villanueva dismissed the potential action related to his $3.5-billion budget as an extension of his past disputes with the board.
He said he inherited more than 800 vacancies of deputies and sergeants when he took office in December after defeating incumbent Jim McDonnell in an upset. He said that he has a requirement to keep deputies on the streets and that he has used overtime to keep them there.
“We’re doing everything that’s fiscally possible to stay within our budget and to live within our means,” he said. “But there are things — structural deficits — that are out of our control.”
Despite this, budget officials in the county’s chief executive office have grown increasingly alarmed over the last several months as the department’s spending outpaced expectations. They say they repeatedly warned the department to slow or reverse the trend, and it only grew.
The situation became dire in recent weeks as county officials finished the fall budget update, which found that the Sheriff’s Department ended the last fiscal year with a $90-million shortfall.
After offering some relief for past litigation that predated Villanueva and the expenses incurred by the Woolsey fire, the deficit remained at nearly $64 million, county officials said.
The Sheriff’s Department, for example, budgeted $150 million for overtime in the last fiscal year but ended up spending nearly twice that. County officials said they remain concerned about a similar trend continuing through the remaining nine months of the current fiscal year.
In response, the supervisors’ proposal would essentially freeze money already allocated to the department until it agrees to a plan to control its spending. The plan would transfer $143 million designed for supplies and capital expenses into a separate account outside Villanueva’s control.
“As LASD makes progress in its budgetary performance to address the current-year deficit,” county officials “may make recommendations to transfer funding back to the Sheriff’s Department’s operating budget units,” the motion says.
The step taken by Solis and Kuehl isn’t without peril for the supervisors, whose districts have cities that entered into multimillion-dollar contracts with the department for policing.
Mayors and council members in these cities — Compton, West Hollywood, Lancaster and Norwalk, among dozens of others — are important constituents.
The supervisors also risk the sheriff, who plans to attend the Tuesday meeting and defend his department before the vote, accusing them of threatening public safety.
Indeed, the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which represents the department’s rank-and-file personnel, expressed concern about the proposed budget freeze.
“Working families in L.A. County know you can’t do more with less, and so do we. Any reductions in hiring will dramatically increase mandatory overtime and reduce deputies’ ability to meet urgent public safety needs,” the association said in a statement Thursday.
Overtime appears to be the key driver of the excess spending. The department, which faced excess costs during the last fiscal year from the Woolsey fire, is trying to replace a shortage of more than 800 uniformed officers, including 470 deputies, said Capt. John McBride, who heads the department’s personnel administration bureau.
“I’m very concerned about this because we are still in a situation where we have a major sworn staffing vacancy issue,” he said. “We cannot not go to a 911 call because we’re over budget. We have to respond.”
Jessica Levinson, a professor on governance issues at Loyola Law School, said the latest clash reflects the unprecedented battle for power between the supervisors and the sheriff. Levinson said it’s striking that the supervisors are intervening in Villanueva’s budget so directly.
“They don’t trust the sheriff. They don’t like the sheriff. The main way you can control the sheriff is through the purse strings — the budget,” she said. “They’re throwing their political weight around, and their political weight is they control the money — and that’s a lot of control.”