In a sharp rebuke, L.A. County supervisors vote to freeze sheriff’s spending

Sheriff Alex Villanueva
L.A. County supervisors voted Tuesday to rein in Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s spending.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday rebuked Sheriff Alex Villanueva over his fiscal stewardship, taking the extraordinary step of freezing a portion of his department’s budget to force the county’s top cop to address spending.

The supervisors expressed their concerns about the Sheriff’s Department’s $63-million budget shortfall and what they see as Villanueva’s failure to address those concerns when they were first raised in December and at least twice since then. The board voted unanimously to require the sheriff to submit to a “payment plan” to reimburse the county before he can regain full control of his resources.

The vote is the latest development in a long-running power struggle between supervisors and the county’s independently elected sheriff over his management of the department.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva attends Board of Supervisors meeting
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, left, seated with Undersheriff Tim Murakami, second-in-command, as they listen during the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting to proposals regarding spending at the Sheriff’s Department.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The board’s motion requires new spending controls at the department without lowering the number of deputies patrolling the unincorporated communities and cities that pay for policing services.


Supervisor Hilda Solis, who authored the motion, said she did so not to attack the sheriff but to address his “ballooning deficit,” which has the potential to drain funds from other county programs. She called the deficit “staggering.”

“The last thing I want to see is we are not providing the needed security and sworn officers on the ground,” she said. “This is not about taking away the safety and security of our neighborhoods.”

Los Angeles County Supervisors Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger
Los Angeles County Supervisors Hilda Solis, right, and Kathryn Barger, left, during a Board meeting with Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who is perhaps the board’s strongest law-enforcement voice, said she too had concerns that the budget shortfall was not addressed sooner.

“We should have been actively working to address this before it hit this amount,” said Barger, whose husband is a retired sheriff’s deputy.

Villanueva pushed back Tuesday, calling his department “the most understaffed law enforcement agency” in the nation, with 816 sworn vacancies. Villanueva said he assumed a $47-million deficit from his predecessor and asked the board to fund the true cost of running the department, which he said would require potentially hundreds of millions more than his $3.5-billion budget.

Villanueva said he had one-on-one meetings Monday with three of the five supervisors. He also met with the county’s chief executive on Friday.

“Our operations are an open book,” Villanueva said. “We’re open to constructive criticism and a collaborative effort in delivering public safety services effectively and cost-consciously.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, left, seated with Undersheriff Tim Murakami, second-in-command, addresses the Board of Supervisors.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Sheriff’s officials attributed Villanueva’s inherited deficit largely to unfunded retirement and workers’ compensation claim costs. The department said supervisors annually underfund its budget and noted that it has a $70-million shortfall alone in providing security for L.A. County’s courthouses and that criminal cases with multiple defendants now require multiple bailiffs, which drives up the costs.

The sheriff’s budget is roughly 10% of the county’s $36-billion overall spending plan, and much of Villanueva’s expenditures are fixed by contractually obligated costs for salaries and health and retirement benefits — which have been steadily rising into what he calls a “structural deficit.”

The board also raised concerns about the department bringing in millions of dollars less in revenue from fines and fees than expected, extending the shortfall. The memo said more study is needed to understand what caused the decrease.

The dispute between the sheriff, who defeated incumbent Jim McDonnell in an upset in November, and the board has been building for months. Budget officials in the county’s chief executive office, which manages spending plans for the board, have grown increasingly alarmed as the sheriff’s spending outpaces expectations.

They repeatedly warned the department to slow or reverse the trend and it only grew, according to a memo obtained by The Times. County officials said the deficit is largely fueled by deputy overtime, despite the department’s strides in filling vacancies. Average annual overtime per employee increased from $4,600 in 2013 to $15,500 last year — a change of more than 230%, according to a Times analysis of employee payroll data released by the county.

“Once the department identified a potential year-end deficit, a financial plan should have been implemented with fiscal staff closely monitoring and adjusting spending as needed,” the memo stated, referring to the sheriff’s budget officials. “If early signs indicated that the plan would not fully address the projected deficit, the department should have reached out to our office to collaboratively develop a more robust plan.”

County officials said that didn’t happen as they worked to finish the fall budget update, which supervisors considered Tuesday. The officials said they remain concerned about a similar trend continuing through the remaining nine months of the fiscal year.

The memo argued that the board should step in, despite the typical deference given to public safety expenditures and more generally the sheriff’s position as an independently elected official with power over day-to-day management of the department.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the supervisors took a cooperative tone with the sheriff and suggested a collaborative approach to fixing the deficit.

“I don’t have a feud with you,” Supervisor Janice Hahn told Villanueva. “I hope you see this more as an opportunity for us to really work together.”

The supervisors’ action freezes money already given to the department until it agrees to a plan to control its spending. Roughly $143 million that had been designated for supplies and capital expenses was placed outside Villanueva’s control until then.

Det. Ron Hernandez, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, called the move irresponsible.

“Cutting public safety is dangerous” and forces choices like “who will or will not get service when they call 911, which deputy will or won’t get critical training,” he said.

The board has previously clashed with the sheriff over his hiring decisions and oversight. 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.