Squeaky wheelers

Whether it was a case of election-yearitis, a nod to the importance of public safety or a greasing of some of the county’s squeakiest wheels, the District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office and county Fire Department were exempted from a resolution authorizing punishing cuts to county departments.

But the exemption might only last two weeks—just enough time for County CAO Paul McIntosh to dig up some revised budget figures that will show how much trouble the county is really in. If the numbers aren’t good, several of the supervisors indicated they would back cuts to public safety services.

D.A. Mike Ramsey and Sheriff Perry Reniff have been double-teaming the board for weeks in hopes that their departments will be spared from McIntosh’s emergency plan to implement a hiring freeze, negotiate cuts in county workers’ wages and possibly even lay off employees in order to cover a $10 million hole in the county budget. McIntosh and the board blame the fiscal fiasco on state legislators, whom the board accused of stealing from local governments to balance their own out-of-control books. At the board’s regular meeting Tuesday, Ramsey and Reniff both said the public would suffer if their departments were not spared the budget ax.

“General-purpose revenue given to the D.A.'s Office has been flat,” Ramsey said. “If you factor in the inflationary factor, we’re actually getting less general-fund revenue [than 10 years ago].”

Ramsey then ticked off a list of crimes his deputies were taking to trial this week, intimating that any budget cuts would affect the ability of his department to prosecute them.

Reniff said he understood the board’s position but noted that, despite a rise in the general population, his understaffed department was already struggling with the same number of deputies (92) it has used since 1981. The county’s per-capita spending on public safety has declined since then as well, from $116.50 per person in 1981 to $65.45 today. Already, Reniff said, some crimes are not investigated, and budget cuts could force the department to cut rural patrols, close down parts of the jail, eliminate gang prevention programs or even limit all deputy responses to emergencies in progress.

Chico Supervisor Jane Dolan called the cuts “unacceptable” but said the board would probably have to make them anyway.

"I don’t think any of our budgets have fat in them. I don’t think our employees are sitting around doing nothing. But until we take this fight to Sacramento instead of Oroville, we will continue to have these problems."