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Officials: Yuba County public safety funding looking dire

December 8, 2017 GMT

Yuba County has public safety needs that aren’t being met, and officials expect the problem to get worse.

Sheriff Steve Durfor said the county’s situation has become dire, and if something isn’t done soon to address fiscal shortfalls the issue will continue to get worse.

That’s why Durfor, county Administrator Robert Bendorf and Linda Fire Protection District Chief Rich Webb say additional funding is needed to help address the deficits public safety entities are facing. Without it, critical services will not be able to keep up with demand and further cuts will need to be made.

The Yuba County officials will go in front of the Board of Supervisors next week to lay out what the county’s public safety needs are and potential options to help close the financial gap. Essentially, the county’s options are to eliminate more services and programs countywide or increase the sales tax.

However, the county doesn’t want to make that decision without the public’s input, Bendorf said.

“We won’t be asking the board to do anything specific, but one of the options we will be presenting is to let the residents decide whether they would want to see something like that put on the ballot,” he said. “We plan on going to the board to demonstrate the public safety needs we face. If the board gives us direction to let the residents decide, we will immediately begin outreach through informal polling in the upcoming weeks.”

General Funds

Much of the funding for law enforcement comes from the county’s general fund, which derives revenue through property tax, sales tax and other fees.

Approximately 70 percent of the county’s general fund goes to public safety – including the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s department, juvenile hall, victim witness services and probation department. The rest is allocated to all other county departments and services, such as public health, emergency services, elections, etc.

Bendorf said general fund revenues have decreased significantly since the economic downturn close to a decade ago. For example, before the recession took hold, the county’s general fund reached about $34 million. But by fiscal year 2012-13, the county experienced a drop of about $10 million in revenue. Since then, revenues have somewhat recovered, albeit slowly. But the county still hasn’t recovered half of that loss. The 2017-’18 general fund is an estimated $28.5 million.

On top of that, state and federal unfunded mandates have added to the cost of doing business for public safety entities, Bendorf said, making it even harder for the county to return to pre-recession levels.

“There is no end to this,” Durfor said. “We have got to find a way, collectively with input from the public, to determine what we want our sheriff’s department and other public safety agencies to look like moving forward. It’s truly a very dire situation we face.”

Deficit Effects

Durfor said the loss has resulted in both a public safety and officer safety issue for his department.

“The last nine years, economically, have been extraordinarily difficult. We’ve been asked to absorb budget cuts of about $1 million a year, in some years of up to $3 million,” Durfor said.

Since the recession hit, he said the department has faced a total deficit of more than $17 million.

“We’ve done everything we can to uphold the highest possible public safety standards in our communities, but we’ve exhausted every level of creativity that we can in finding the necessary funding,” Durfor said.

Before the recession, the sheriff’s department had 51 patrol deputies on staff. Today, there are only 28 deputies serving roughly 664 square miles. Of those, 12 have one year or less experience; 16 total (including the 12)have two years or less; 20 total deputies have three years or less experience.

It doesn’t stop there. At one time, there were 15 dispatchers, but now there are seven. Durfor said on any one shift, there are only about two dispatchers available to answer calls from residents. Considering there has been about a 15 percent increase in 911 calls since 2012, that means longer wait times for callers. Even then, because of the decrease in staffing levels, Durfor said the department has had to prioritize calls by importance during the busiest times.

Other cuts have come by way of job vacancies being left vacant, unfunded positions being eliminated altogether, outdated vehicles or equipment not being replaced, the fleet being downsized, and a reduction of crime prevention services, among other things.

There’s a similar story for county fire districts, Webb said. Fire protection districts have experienced similar cuts since the recession. In his district alone, he’s seen an increase in call volume of about 25 percent. Positions have gone unfilled, requiring full-time firefighters to do more with less, and led to more of a reliance on volunteers.

He said the fire districts have lost about $325,000 in property tax revenues since the high in 2007/08. That, combined with an approximately $900,000 increase in the cost of doing business has made it increasingly more difficult to fully recoup.

“We aren’t doing a lot of the things we’d like to be doing. We are in a situation where we can really only be reactive. There aren’t many opportunities for us to be proactive,” Webb said.

It’s not just one area of public safety that has been hit, it’s the entire justice and fire system, Bendorf said. There are gaps across the board that need to be filled.

Supervisors workshop to discuss potential sales tax

The Yuba County supervisors will conduct a workshop Dec. 12 starting at 1:30 p.m. at the Yuba County Government Center – 915 Eighth Street, Marysville.

If supervisors give the go-ahead, Administrator Robert Bendorf and his team will go about contacting a portion of Yuba County residents to see whether or not they support a sales tax initiative as a future ballot measure.

“Ultimately, we all want well-served, safer communities. Getting to that point will depend on what the public wants,” Bendorf said.

If voters were to approve a 1 percent sales tax increase for the unincorporated areas of the county, consultants estimate the increase would generate an additional $4.3 million in its first full year of implementation. Bendorf said that additional revenue would help the county rebound from the recession and potentially enhance the amount of services and programs that are provided to local residents.

– Jake Abbott