Cal Sheriff pleads for $$

By Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat June 14, 2013 11:30 am

Calaveras County Sheriff’s officials, in budget talks Thursday, made a renewed push for additional funding, citing high overtime costs, cuts to marine safety operations and stresses on the department that became evident during the high-profile Leila Fowler homicide investigation.

The county Board of Supervisors is expected to conclude four days of preliminary budget negotiations today.

Sheriff Gary Kuntz asked for four deputies at an annual cost of $345,332 to replenish ranks reduced by 14 officers since 2008. He also asked for three investigative and five patrol vehicles — tabbed at about $241,000 — to replace “cars in very, very bad shape.” 

He requested to hire a correctional officer and three non-sworn correctional technicians for about $325,000 to staff the new jail opening this fall to accommodate 80 inmates, more than the 65 the current facility holds.

As they have in years past, the sheriff and his deputies went into great detail about the department’s shortcomings based on diminished funding compared to peak years in the middle of the last decade.

Sgt. Blain Smith said he can only afford to keep up maintenance of three of five Marine Safety Unit boats. He added that the dive team hasn’t been able to maintain its equipment either.

Dispatch staff have accrued more than $30,000 in overtime in the past year and episodes like the recent Leila Fowler homicide in Valley Springs, which overlapped with a kidnapping investigation in West Point, show where the threads are getting bare in the county’s thin blue line, according to Capt. Jim Macedo.

“Life goes on,” Macedo said. “Calls don’t stop coming into that office just because we’ve had a major incident.”

Kuntz said when he called for “all hands on deck” at the Fowler crime scene “and I’ve got four deputies looking at me … that is scary. It’s somewhat embarrassing.”

He said he was grown weary of hearing “maybe next year” for funds to strengthen the department.

“At the height of the housing boom and when the general fund had more money than it ever had, the Sheriff’s Office was told that there was no money to add staff,” Kuntz said. “This argument has led to a loss of credibility.”

He said the presence of additional officers lent by nearby agencies proved a larger force can deter crime.

“With all those deputies roaming the streets, we had no burglaries,” Kuntz said.

Macedo said the department has drawn on certain designated funds beyond annual revenues to fund basic activities that it is “cannibalizing” itself.

“Everybody’s cannibalizing themselves, Capt. Macedo, not just the Sheriff’s Office,” said Supervisor Merita Callaway, who has typically been most scrutinous of the department’s budget in recent years.

“Not as bad as us,” Kuntz said.

Despite that mild chippiness, audience members who spoke and Supervisor Cliff Edson, elected in November, agreed the tone of the Sheriff’s Office presentation had cooled down compared to recent years.

Edson’s fellow freshman supervisor, Chris Wright, gave a strong endorsement of the requests, similar to one given by Supervisor Darren Spellman the past two years.

“This is a new board,” Wright said. “I’m fully committed to funding the Sheriff’s Office, whatever they need, whatever they’ve asked for.”

Another newly elected supervisor, Debbie Ponte, missed the latter half of the Sheriff’s Office presentation Thursday and thus did not comment.

The budget recommended by the County Administrative Office does not include most of the department’s requests and the $36.9 million general fund budget is already balanced assuming reduced contingency and reserve funds for emergency spending. 

The board is expected to reach a consensus on a preliminary budget today before a final vote at its June 25 meeting.