Top public safety officials in Calaveras County expressed concerns over a recommended hiring freeze Tuesday afternoon during the first of three possible hearings with the Board of Supervisors regarding the proposed budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year that begins July 1.

County Administrator Timothy Lutz recommended an immediate freeze on all unfilled positions funded by the $57 million General Fund as a way to help eliminate a projected shortfall of between $7.7 million and $8.6 million.

The freeze would provide an estimated savings of up to $3.3 million, with the biggest hit coming from the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office that would see 11 vacant positions remain unfilled.

Sheriff Rick DiBasilio said he was concerned about the freeze because the department is already understaffed due in part to high turnover, with 16 out of 119 total positions currently vacant.

“I have three deputies on patrol at any given time of the day,” said DiBasilio. “That’s 1,100 square miles that they have to cover with three guys.”

The current staffing level in the department is less than it was in 2002, DiBasilio added.

Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Macedo said the freeze could also have longer term effects than the current year as it takes between 17 to 25 months on average to get a potential recruit from the hiring phase to actually patrolling the streets.

“This is not hyperbole, but that’s dangerous,” Macedo said. “I’ve been through it before .... You end up with understaffed shifts, folks getting hurt, delays in people showing up to calls, delayed response in the jail for correctional officers” dealing with an inmate.

Macedo said about 16 people leave the department each year, including about eight sworn personnel, seven jail employees and a dispatcher.

DiBasilio said part of the problem in attracting and retaining recruits is that the wages offered by the county aren’t competitive with others in the region, noting that he could have made $10 more per hour in Amador County prior to becoming sheriff.

Another official who took issue with some of the positions that would be frozen under Lutz’ recommendation was District Attorney Barbara Yook.

Yook said one of the positions in particular that would go unfilled, a deputy district attorney, would have serious impacts on her department’s ability to function.

The office is in the process of filling the position, which Yook said has remained vacant since the departure of a deputy district attorney for “greener pastures” in Napa Valley a couple months ago.

“We’ve been an attorney short for a couple of months now and this would be devastating to our operations,” Yook said of freezing the position.

Lutz has also recommended plugging the hole in the General Fund with $1.5 million in anticipated carryover funds, transferring between about $1.8 million and $2 million from a fund comprised of revenue from tax liens, using nearly $1.5 million in reserves, and eliminating “extra hires” for a savings of between $325,000 and $500,000.

Tuolumne County leaders are also grappling with a projected shortfall of nearly $4 million in its General Fund for the next fiscal year, but are considering layoffs and cuts to services due in part to a lack of carryover funds that has helped buoy the operation in the past.

Lutz said that a big reason for Calaveras County’s tenuous budget situation now and in the foreseeable future stems from mandated increases to the amount it pays into the California Public Employee Retirement System, something that is dogging the budgets of cities and counties throughout the state.

While larger cities and counties with more cash on hand can pay down some of their unfunded liabilities in advance to help reduce the ongoing expense, Lutz said rural municipalities like Calaveras County don’t have the same luxury.

Another significant expense is $2.3 million from the General Fund that’s needed to pay the county’s share of costs related to recent disasters, including Butte Fire recovery, tree mortality and road damage caused by the epic winter.

The budget also doesn’t include potential revenue from commercial cannabis cultivation, as the board appears to be moving toward a ban on the industry.

In an executive summary, Lutz described the proposed budget as a “placeholder” to carry the county into the next fiscal year while leaders come up with strategies to address the organization’s long-term structural issues.

The board is scheduled to continue the budget hearing at 9 a.m. today with presentations from other county officials, prior to voting on a proposed budget at a meeting scheduled for June 27.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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