Adam Christianson won the job of Stanislaus County sheriff-coroner in June 2006 with hopes of hiring new deputies and expanding jail space.
He was on his way to transforming the department's patrol services by moving more deputies into substations in Waterford, Riverbank and Patterson -- a shift that he said would put deputies in closer contact with the people they serve.
Four years later, Christianson is running for re-election with a much bleaker outlook. Now the debate between he and challenger Rob Jackson of the Turlock Police Department centers on who can best lead the department through tight times marked by layoffs and budget cuts.
Layoffs among the ranks of deputies and the department's shrinking department budget have forced Christianson to roll back decentralization -- his administration's cornerstone public safety strategy -- two years after it was put in place.
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He said his administration enjoyed two good fiscal years, hiring deputies and purchasing new equipment before seeing signs of the downward spiraling economy.
"I don't think anyone would have been able to forecast the unprecedented declines in revenue we have today," Christianson said. "I didn't think we would ever get to the point that we would have to have a reduction in force."
Budget cuts for the next fiscal year will slash $6.4 million in spending, lay off 52 employees, close three of four barracks at the low-security Honor Farm and eliminate 16 vacant positions.
Jackson said it's Christianson's lack of management experience that kept him from seeing severe budget cuts were coming. Revenue to local governments in Stanislaus County peaked in 2007, a year after housing values began to plummet and signs of the recession started to emerge.
"They ignored we were going to have tough times ahead," Jackson said. "We need a leader that can identify the problems in the future."
Despite the recent budget turmoil, Christianson says his efforts to improve the department have worked, resulting in the lowest crime rate of the past 20 years.
"I certainly don't want to lay people off, but you can't ignore the fact that the team here has done a great job," Christianson said.
He said the drop in overall crime during his four years as sheriff "has everything to do with experienced leadership at every level of the department."
Crime dropping since 2001
The overall crime rate for the county's unincorporated area has been on a steady decline since 2001, when Les Weidman led the Sheriff's Department.
That's in keeping with statewide trends. Violent crimes declined steadily from 1992 to 2008, according to the state Justice Department. Property crimes dropped dramatically in the 1990s, had a small resurgence by 2005 and declined since then.
In Christianson's jurisdiction, specific crimes -- like homicides, robberies, assaults and burglaries -- have fluctuated since 2006, according to sheriff's statistics. In the same area in 2009, auto thefts were at their lowest since 1996.
Weidman, a Christianson supporter who was sheriff for 15 years, said law enforcement agencies shouldn't base their success on crime rates because they can be too difficult to predict.
"Sometimes, there's no rhyme or reason," he said.
There were some years, Weidman said, when the department was being very aggressive in enforcement, yet the crime rate went up. In other years, the department was less aggressive, but crime rates went down.
Weidman said it's better to gauge success on whether the department can galvanize the community into anti-crime efforts that produce long-lasting improvements.
"You may not get the credit for the low crime rates, but you're certainly going to get blamed for the high ones," Weidman said. "(Christianson) has had a tough four years. Given the hand that he was dealt, I think he has done a good job."
Jackson doesn't think so. He points to Christianson folding his decentralizing plan as a sign that the incumbent wasted limited resources with budget cuts looming.
"You have to centralize your services, so you can cut down on costs," Jackson said. "We don't have enough deputies to make it work."
Christianson and Under- sheriff Bill Heyne said in 2007 that decentralization would get deputies closer to the neighborhoods they patrol, cut travel and response time, and increase their presence in the community.
Outlying stations debated
The sheriff says the plan worked, providing a much more efficient level of service for all residents living in the 1,500 square miles of the county, especially those in rural towns like Valley Home, Knights Ferry and Hickman.
He said the plan did not require any extra funding or resources to make the change.
"We simply asked our deputies to report for duty at a different location," Christianson said.
Once the sheriff's administrative team learned in February that layoffs were inevitable, decentralization was eliminated. The department will lose 18 of its 178 patrol deputies, 10 jail deputies, three lieutenants, three patrol sergeants and four jail sergeants.
Ryan Killian, president of the Stanislaus Sworn Deputies Association, said many deputies initially supported decentralization. The union represents about 170 patrol deputies, who have voted to endorse Jackson.
He said the department restructured its patrol beats for decentralization, and it created some problems. For instance, a deputy who patrolled Knights Ferry also had to patrol 30 miles to the south in Denair and south Turlock.
The union raised concerns, but was told "decentralization had left the station, and we're not going to pull it back," Killian said.
He said the sheriff didn't have "a crystal ball" and couldn't see the drastic budget cuts that would come in the future. Decentralization, however, was not planned appropriately with input from everyone on patrol.
"I respect (Christianson's) ability and drive to push the department forward," Killian said. "But I think (decentralization) was a failure."
Even though Christianson had to draw back his deputies, he says decentralization produced lasting successes. He said decentralization was the reason the department received $2.5 million in federal stimulus money to save eight deputy jobs.
Decentralization, he said, also created new partnerships, like having a Stanislaus County probation officer working closely with deputies out of the sheriff's Riverbank office.
The department still has deputies assigned to patrol Salida, Keyes, Empire, Mo- desto's airport neighborhood and Denair.
Familiar faces remain
Thomas Reeves, chairman of the Salida Municipal Advisory Council, said he doesn't expect budget cuts to diminish the level of sheriff's service. Cuts forced the department to close its Salida and Denair substations.
Having a community deputy provides the same kind of access to the Sheriff's Department as a substation, he said.
"We know their names; we got the deputies' cell-phone numbers," Reeves said. "If we had issues with public safety, we would be calling those numbers even with a substation here."
The department's custodial deputies have a more positive perception of Christianson's four years than their counterparts on patrol. The Stanislaus County Custodial Deputy Sheriff's Association represents about 220 deputies who work at jail facilities.
The union's president, Grant Beard, said Christianson has purchased needed safety equipment for the jail deputies like stab-proof vests. Before, deputies were forced to buy their own $600 vests.
"There's been improvements," Beard said. "(Christianson) is a proven leader."
Both sheriff candidates acknowledge the department will be forced to prioritize what services it can provide because of budget cuts.
Christianson has said the layoffs will translate to 28 deputies on patrol on a given day, down from 35 today. The department will have 24 detectives instead of 30.
New routine for lesser calls
Another significant cut was reducing the number of community service officers from 28 to 14. They were redeployed in the past several years to respond to burglaries, vehicle thefts and other lower-priority crimes.
Christianson says he will focus on responding to calls and keeping the worst criminals behind bars. He hopes to push low-priority crimes to phone and online reporting.
Jackson says he will cut spending on the administrative side of the department to strengthen funding for staffers on the frontline such as patrol deputies, community service officers and jailers.
He said the Sheriff's Department must change or else "I think we're going to see the effects of three to four years of mismanagement."
The sheriff said he took on a department four years ago that was understaffed and underfunded. Things are tougher now, he says, but his staff has plans for when the economy turns around and it can start hiring again.
"I'm hopeful we'll be able to hold the line, and regain the ground we lost," Christianson said.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.