LA Supes Slap Partial Hiring Freeze On Sheriff's Department Over $63M Deficit; Villanueva Says He Needs More Funding

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva inspects new recruits at a swearing in this January 4, 2019 file photo. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)

Updated Oct. 1, 2019

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday slapped a partial hiring freeze on the Sheriff's Department and required Sheriff Alex Villanueva to repay $63 million he overspent.

Villanueva has argued that a freeze would "cripple" public safety, but supervisors pointed out that it would only affect administrative positions, not deputies who patrol the streets or guard the jails.

The sheriff countered civilians comprise half of his 18,000-plus workforce and hold key positions supporting street cops, aiding in the operation of the nation's largest jail system, and screening new recruits.

The Board also pulled $143 million from Villanueva's current budget as insurance in case he doesn't pay the money back and stop the fiscal bleeding.

The fight over the sheriff's budget comes amid concerns over Villanueva's efforts to re-hire deputies terminated for misconduct and his decision to open a criminal investigation into the county inspector general, who serves as the public's chief watchdog over the sheriff's department. Some supervisors have said they've lost confidence in the judgment of Villanueva, a former lieutenant who took office in December.

Much of the department's deficit is due to overtime to cover hundreds of deputy vacancies — a longtime problem at the agency — and, according to the sheriff, to a shortfall in state funding for providing security at over 40 county courthouses.

County CEO Sachi Hamai said the number of deputy vacancies fell from 477 in December 2018, when Villanueva took office, to 340 by August. But "as positions are being filled, the overtime is escalating, so there seems to be something that's going on in the overtime budget," she told the Board Tuesday. The department has notoriously outdated computers for monitoring overtime and other data collection and analysis.

"STAGGERING" OVERSPENDING

The motion directs county staff to work with the Sheriff's Department to come up with a plan to curb overspending.

Villanueva had previously called the motion "political grandstanding" that would threaten public safety, adding the deficit is the supervisors' problem — not his.

"All they can do is write a bigger check to cover it, because we don't have any fat," the sheriff told KPCC/LAist on Friday.

Addressing the Board Tuesday, Villanueva called the budget a "political document" and said his department is "severely underfunded." He chastised the supervisors for not funding the "true cost of public safety," which he estimated to be $3.9 billion a year.

The department's budget in the current fiscal year is $3.6 billion.

"We are currently the most underfunded law enforcement agency in the nation," the sheriff said.

Villanueva said the freeze on civilian hiring could hurt recruitment efforts, noting as an example that civilians conduct the exams for all deputy applicants.

The head of the union that represents deputies also criticized the Board's action.

"Cutting public safety is dangerous business," said Ron Hernandez, president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. "It forces impossible choices like who will or will not get service when they call 911."

For her part, Supervisor Hilda Solis called the overspending "staggering." She criticized the sheriff for not responding when county staff reached out about it in the spring and summer. "That's what I am really concerned about," Solis said.

"No department is beyond the reach of accountability," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, adding that the Sheriff's Department is not a "sacred cow."

Supervisor Kathryn Barger offered an olive branch: "Let's partner on this problem," she told Villanueva.

"Our operations are an open book and if someone can identify what can be improved upon, we are open to constructive criticism," the sheriff told the Board.

The sheriff's deficit topped $90 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, but the county's CEO transferred $26.8 million into the department's budget to cover one-time expenses for the Woolsey Fire ($16 million) and litigation costs from settlements reached in previous years ($10.8 million).

POLITICAL PAYBACK?

The sheriff sees the effort to rein in his spending — and his other battles with the supervisors — as political payback from a board that supported his predecessor in last year's election.

"It's highly suspect to all of a sudden have a concern about deficits," Villanueva told KPCC/LAist Friday, noting the county is enjoying a surplus because of increased tax revenues from the good economy.

"My predecessor ran a deficit every single year and not a peep out of the board," he said.

Former Sheriff Jim McDonnell ended his last full year in office with a deficit, although it was under $15 million.

Other sheriffs also have run deficits, but typically they've worked with the county CEO and supervisors to fix it, according to former Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

"The two sheriffs I worked with never let it get to this point," Yaroslavsky said of the board's standoff with Villanueva. "They'd work with the CEO, they'd work with the board to figure out a mitigation plan."

Kuehl said county officials tried earlier this year to work with Villanueva to address the growing deficit but the sheriff basically blew them off.

"When the CEO tried to reach out during the year to help with this, it was like, 'Go find 63 million somewhere, I'm sorry,'" Kuehl told KPCC/LAist, quoting the sheriff.

THIS... AND SO MUCH MORE

The budget showdown is just the latest sign of the frayed relationship between the sheriff and the Board of Supervisors, which has taken him to court to challenge his authority to re-hire deputies who've been fired for wrongdoing.

All five supervisors have said they lack full confidence in Villanueva, a former sheriff's lieutenant who rocked L.A.'s political world with his victory over McDonnell last November.

The bad blood goes beyond the issue of rehiring fired deputies.

Supervisors are concerned the sheriff is going easy on deputy misconduct because he's opening fewer internal affairs investigations and has described sometimes violent secret deputy subgroups as mostly benign.

They've also criticized his decision to remove virtually all of the department's senior leaders — including its top financial official — and to open a criminal investigation into the department's main watchdog — the county inspector general.

UPDATES:

4:58 p.m. on Oct. 1, 2019: This article was updated with the outcome of the Board of Supervisors vote.