Stanislaus County supervisors OK sheriff layoffs

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson’s plan to save $3.36 million by laying off 27 employees in January was approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.

But supervisors rejected Christianson’s more drastic proposal to lay off 49 staff members because they said he had not considered all his budget options.

“I think this budget has been rushed through,” Supervisor Jim DeMartini said of the sheriff’s original proposal. “Why has the gang unit been eliminated but the dive team and equestrian unit not been talked about?”

Christianson is not required to lay off any employees this winter, but he has calculated that doing so will save enough tax money to prevent him from having to lay off a much higher number of staff members next summer.

Supervisors and the county Chief Executive Officer Richard Robinson encouraged the sheriff to consider more creative money-saving ideas, like consolidating SWAT teams, eliminating the department’s airplane and helicopter and negotiating lower salary and pension costs with law enforcement unions.

“Perhaps we should all consider an additional permanent 10 percent reduction salary reduction,” Robinson suggested as an alternative to layoffs. If salaries are not reduced by next summer, he said, “we have to reduce staff.”

The typical sheriff’s deputy earns $115,000 per year in salary and benefits, not counting extra pay for working overtime, according to the department’s business manager Dan Wirtz.

One very expensive aspect of the sheriff department’s benefit package is its generous pension plan, the costs of which keep climbing. That escalating pension obligation is the root of many of Stanislaus’ budget woes.

“The compensation package our sheriff’s department will be receiving will increase 14 percent next year,” Supervisor William O’Brien said. “We can’t continue to have 50-year-old (deputies) retiring with 90 percent of their salaries (paid to them in pensions) for the rest of their lives.”

Those pensions, however, are prized by the union.

“That’s a benefit we’ve obtained through negotiation,” said Ryan Killian, of the Stanislaus Sworn Deputies Association. “We worked so long to get it.”

Continuing that guaranteed retirement benefit will be expensive for the budget-strapped county, which has been spending down its reserves during the last several years of recession.

With funding in decline and reserves dwindling, Robinson warned all the county’s departments this fall to brace for big cuts starting next summer. He encouraged departments to seek options for saving money now, promising they will be able to keep what they save to reduce future staff cuts.

Christianson decided to do just that. He expects to save $3,358,082 by laying off 27 employees Jan. 29, and he will not replace his soon-to-retire undersheriff. His remaining staff will total about 531.

The sheriff’s staff reduction plan includes mostly lower-paid personnel, including deputy coroners, crime analysts, community service officers, confidential assistants, clerks and cooks. A couple law enforcement deputies and custodial deputies also are on his list.

Unless union wage and perhaps pension concessions can be negotiated, more cuts will have to be made next summer in the sheriff’s department and throughout the county government.

Stanislaus already has shrunk its staff by nearly 19 percent since 2007. It currently employs about 3,746 people.

Supervisors voted Tuesday to eliminate three more positions by closing its print shop. Those employees will lose their jobs Jan. 25.

They had considered cutting two more public defenders, but they decided to hold off after being warned such a cut might end up costing more than it saved.

When there aren’t enough public defenders to represent poor people accused of crimes, judges appoint private attorneys to be their lawyers. The county must pay for those private attorneys, and they earn more per hour than public defenders.