League of Women Voters hosts county sheriff's talk

NEWPORT BEACH — A group of diners got more than soup and a sandwich Friday; they got a lunchtime taste of the law at the Coco's Bakery Restaurant at Fashion Island.

About 40 women and men wearing blue-trimmed name tags gathered to listen to Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens give a talk about the effects of budget cuts on law enforcement.

Members of the League of Women Voters – Orange Coast and other community members gathered into the diner's den-like area to hear how Hutchens cut about $53 million from the Sheriff's Department in the two years after her initial appointment.

Hutchens discussed ways law enforcement agencies are reducing costs and trying to make sure those cuts don't affect service — changes that include making many positions switch from sworn to civilian jobs.

The Sheriff's Department did just that in the county jail: They used civilians for some functions, Hutchens said, adding that making cuts to law enforcement agencies while maintaining service was a priority in balancing the budget.

"Hopefully, you have not felt it at all," Hutchens said.

Costa Mesa and Newport Beach each has its own police department, but the Sheriff's Department patrols Newport Harbor, provides the coroner and serves the county transit system.

Local agencies are not the only ones affected by cuts. State- and federal-level agencies are also being stretched thin, she said.

"Everybody is getting hit," Hutchens said.

Much of the money the Sheriff's Department receives comes from Proposition 172, a half-cent sales tax to benefit public safety. When sales decline, money going into the department also gets lower, and those public safety functions need money from the general fund, Hutchens said.

She highlighted how many agencies are launching education campaigns on what residents can do to protect themselves.

Hutchens emphasized that people should inform themselves on laws and ways to protect themselves in a natural disaster, including getting sufficient provisions for an emergency.

Federal disaster relief would be a last resort.

"If we got to FEMA, we're really in trouble," she said, adding that California is one of the best-prepared states.

"Why? Because we've had so many disasters," Hutchens said.

Police and fire agencies share radios and communicate quickly — something that isn't universal nationwide, she added.

Other matters of concern for those in the audience were the privatization of jails, mental-health services for inmates, services for veterans and marijuana legalization — although the last subject was a bit squeamish for everyone, who shared differing views.

"It was interesting, about the breadth of her job," said Costa Mesa resident Shirley Fisher, who attended the meeting.

Members of the League of Women Voters said they enjoyed the hour-and-a-half talk.

"I'm so glad she's our sheriff," said Barb Wood, a League member. "I'm glad to have a strong woman who's so personable, who is such a good communicator."

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