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County approves recommended revisions to 2021-2022 draft budget

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors authorized June 15 that recommended revisions to next fiscal year’s draft budget totaling $16.9 million be made before the final vote.

Nearly $950 million of the approximately $6.9 billion recommended budget is made up of general fund expenses, which the board directly controls.

Jeff Van Wagenen, County executive officer, set aside a $16 million augmentation fund for additional requests made by county departments during a public hearing on June 14.

Recognizing that the approved requests total $900,000 more than what is available, Van Wagenen said reserves would have to be tapped or the excess trimmed before the board votes on the final budget at the end of the month.

Should the state cover the impending governor recall election, Van Wagenen said the County Registrar of Voters’ funding could be cut by $4 million, which could be added to the augmentation fund.

The CEO’s recommended budget provides its largest appropriations to the Riverside University Health System at $1.7 billion, Public Safety at $1.7 billion and Human Services at $1.5 billion. These three portfolios saw increases of 9.5%, 4.7% and 10%, respectively. Together, they account for 70.7% of the total budget.

The Sheriff’s Department

The CEO’s draft budget awarded the Sheriff’s Department $372.2 million in general fund money, which amounts to a 25% increase in Net County Cost.

But Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, whose efforts to increase his department’s funding have resulted in a split community opinion over the past year, requested an additional $18 million during his presentation to the board.

According to Bianco, the increase in the county’s population as people from Los Angeles and Orange counties move to Riverside is accompanied by a rise in crime. Property crime, violent crime and drug sales are on the rise, as is human trafficking due to the influx of people coming across the border, he said.

“It is unbelievably important that we realize the failures of the past,” he said. “We’ve never really realized the true cost of law enforcement in this county. The Sheriff’s Department has always operated on an absolute minimum.”

Avalon Edwards, the Starting Over Inc. policy fellow who frequently speaks against additional police funding at board meetings, noted that Bianco’s department had already received a $54 million funding increase in the draft budget.

“We know that policing and incarceration are not preventative measures,” Edwards said. “They are reactive. What we’re investing in isn’t working.”

Community surveys indicate the county’s unincorporated communities are interested in higher deputy staffing levels. The board’s approval of budget revisions includes $5.5 million for that staffing, but denies the other $12.5 million requested for staffing costs, the Coroner’s Office, the John Benoit Detention Center and the Ben Clark Training Center.

The District Attorney’s Office

DA Mike Hestrin also argued that the county’s population increase, coupled with a rise in crime, is coinciding with reduced staffing levels in his department.

According to Hestrin, the county has seen an 800% increase in fentanyl-related deaths over the last several years.

“It’s stunning the amount of poison that’s pouring into our community,” he said. “We’ve got our hands full.”

The DA also reported there were 231 jury trials in the county last year. But as more unfunded state mandates are put in place, he said labor costs begin to increase.

“Eventually, something has to give,” he said. “We have a higher crime rate per capita than San Diego County, (but) San Diego County has 100 more prosecutors than Riverside County. We are stretched thin.”

The DA’s Office received $157.5 million in the draft budget, at a Net County Cost of $85.3 million.

The board’s approval of revisions awarded the DA’s Office $1 million in extra funding for staffing related to state mandates, half of what Hestrin asked for.

Department of Public Social Services, Behavioral Health

The Department of Public Social Services asked the board for $7 million in extra funding for what it calls an Integrated Service Delivery, a project that received support from public commenters and sparked the interest of the supervisors during the public hearing.

According to Sayori Baldwin, DPSS assistant executive officer, the integrated system would allow all county departments to access a database on anyone who has come into contact with a county service. She argued it would take collaboration between departments to the next level and streamline the delivery of crucial services to residents.

“We need a system that will migrate our data to a single hub,” Baldwin said. “It will jointly triage the cases.”

DPSS representatives told the story of a resident who experienced housing insecurity since birth, found he had an alternative sexual identity as a youth and eventually experienced addiction, incarceration and homelessness as an adult. He was not provided county housing aid until he was 28 years old.

Had an integrated system been in place, DPSS representatives argued county departments could have tracked his needs for housing and mental health support early on, and a connection to services could have replaced incarceration in his case.

“When we have indications of red flags, anybody should be able to go into the system across our entire county enterprise — even the school district — to understand the services that are available to the family,” Baldwin said.

The board approved that $3.5 million for the system be added to the revised budget in order to get the project’s initial proceedings off the ground. It also authorized $1 million of the $2.9 million requested by Behavioral Health for Recovery Village, a facility intended to offer vocational training and focus on the key aspects of the Healthy Places Index, which Riverside County received a score of 30 — the second-lowest score in the region.

“If we mean what we say … when we talk about adults going into probation or adults being incarcerated that we want to see different outcomes, this is where we make the investment,” Supervisor Chuck Washington said. “This is where we put our money to stop that trend.”

No general fund money for unfunded pension obligations

Supervisor Jeff Hewitt, the only dissenting vote in the board’s 4-1 approval of the budget revisions, proposed $10 million from the augmentation fund be spent on beginning to pay off the county’s looming pension debt, which stands at $3.6 billion.

“A budget reflects your priorities,” Hewitt said. “Obviously, we’re closing our eyes and we don’t care what happens for the next year or two.”

The county has put its faith in a trust meant to pre-fund pension obligations, which financial advisers argued is the safest way forward.

According to Don Kent, County director of finance, there is currently $50 million in the trust. If no money is drawn from the trust, that pool is expected to grow to $100 million in five years and to $175 million in 10 years.

“You will have the money to pay additional discretionary payments from that money,” he said. “Just don’t pull it from the [general fund].”

But Hewitt argued the rate of return from the trust may not be as high as expected due to rising inflation. If the $10 million would not go toward a direct payment of pension obligations, he proposed adding that amount to the trust fund.

Hewitt warned that as interest rates increase, the only way to avoid heavy cuts to services will be to drastically increase taxes. Washington responded that that scenario is not certain.

“Prices have increased dramatically but things will settle out, probably sometime next year,” Washington said. “We don’t have a true picture of what inflation will look like then.”

Board Chair Karen Spiegel said using the proposed $10 million for paying pension obligations would be a betrayal of the services desired by constituents.

“The trust is something we did for these kinds of things,” she said. “When you weigh the two out, I have to go with the will of the constituents.”

The final budget will be presented for a vote on June 29.