Calexico Chronicle / IV Weekly

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Frozen Out: Hiring Lid Flummoxing Some County Department Heads

     Just over a week since Imperial County instituted an immediate partial hiring freeze and deep cuts to shave off millions of dollars in deficit spending, some county officials are still trying to come to grips with what the impact will mean. 


     The Imperial County Board of Supervisors on May 21 adopted a so-called three-year mitigation plan to cut costs by $14.6 million over that time period. It is an effort to stop using county reserves to prop up and balance the general fund portion of the budget. The cuts represent a seven-percent spending decrease over three years.


     County Assessor Robert Menvielle, whose department is affected by the cost-cutting measures, admitted he was waiting for the axe to drop for some time.


     “I think (the county board has) been hinting that drastic measures need to be done since the first of the year. I anticipated this would happen,” he said during an interview May 24. “This has been something that’s coming.”


     Menvielle said in the last two years affected departments have been asked to cut discretionary spending, or spending not related to salaries and benefits, by 15 percent or justify why some expenses were needed.


     While Menvielle said the cutbacks have been looming, Imperial County District Attorney Gilbert Otero said he believes the public might just be witnessing the tip of the iceberg. 


     “I don’t think we’re going to know till later in the process how bad it is,” Otero said during a May 24 interview.


     In addition to the partial hiring freeze, measures include freezing some promotions and slashing spending in areas such as out-of-county travel, use of professional services, delaying some building projects, and cutting miscellaneous expenses.


     Departments affected by the cuts are those supported out of the general fund portion of the budget, such as public safety, the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, planning and building, clerk-recorder, assessor and auditor, to name just a few.


     Departments such as behavioral health, air pollution control and public health are unaffected by the freeze or cuts because they are funded at or near 100 percent through other dedicated revenue streams such as federal and state funding and grants.


     “It’s going to be tough all around. I think these are the first steps toward a larger mitigation plan,” Chief Public Defender Benjamin Salorio said May 24.


     Sheriff-Coroner Ray Loera said May 28 that the hiring freeze could be particularly hairy for his department as “we’re in a fairly constant state of hiring people. We’ve never really reached the numbers we’ve been allocated --- we fill as we go.”


     Clerk-Recorder Chuck Storey was a bit more confident in his department’s ability to weather the storm and add positions when needed and justify expenses if need be. Storey said his department is one of the only general fund departments that earns revenue and pays for itself through selling and recording documents and creating records.


     All of the department heads interviewed for this story said they are awaiting just how the new approval process for spending and adding positions will work. As part of the three-year mitigation plan approval supervisors Chairman Ryan Kelley requested that a process be in place where funding requests first go to a standing special finance committee, then to the county executive office, before coming to the county board for final approval.


     Storey, for instance, has only one open position in his office now. But it was authorized to be filled before the freeze, and interviews for the vacancy are to get under way in the next month.


     Still, he said if he has a position come open, he said he believes the board would allow him to fill it because his department generates revenue.


     “When I took office in 2011, we counted $400,000 against the general fund. Now we’re at zero,” Storey said.


     He added his department is not allowed to collect profit by law, so any revenues go back into covering costs.


     Heads of non-revenue-generating departments are not quite so confident.


     Otero said he is worried about losing additional staff members, including deputy county prosecutors. Over the last several years, his department has been unable to retain deputy D.A.s or recruit new ones because of what he and the prosecutors’ union say are low wages.


     He has several open deputy D.A. positions and he had yet to determine as of May 24 how many of those positions might be frozen.


     “We have a tough time recruiting, a tough time retaining, were stretched thinner … I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Otero said.


     He said he is pleased the county is finally taking a long, hard look at itself and asking, “How did we get to this point?”


     Otero credited Supervisor Jesus Escobar with asking the tough questions in order to get to the bottom of the county’s financial problems. Escobar stirred some controversy during the May 21 board meeting when he said the three-year mitigation plan wasn’t doing enough to address the financial issues, and that cuts should be deeper.


     Meanwhile, Menvielle said he is trying to determine how many of his four open positions will be frozen and how many will be filled. He said two entry-level positions were approved to be filled and recruiting is ongoing. But, he said he has two “higher-salaried” positions that were funded in the previous budget that he’s “assuming they’re frozen.”


     Salorio said he recently lost his No. 2 public defender to retirement, so he has that position to fill and another public defender post open.


     “I’m trying to figure out right now whether those are subject to the freeze,” he said, adding his department’s services are “mandated by the constitution.”


     “I have to provide a minimum level of services … how do I operate within the budget?” Salorio asked rhetorically.


     As for how the freeze and the cutbacks will affect the staffing of the county’s $33 million, 274-bed county jail addition that opened in spring 2018, Loera said it just made a slow process even slower.


     Loera initially opened just one of its six 45-bed dormitories with plans to gradually hire more correctional officers and ramp up to full occupancy over several years. The strategy was to spread out labor-cost increases. The facility also includes a new inmate booking area.


     Loera said the wing is still open, which he said was a requirement of the funding he received from the state for its construction, and the booking center is still staffed. Those levels were achieved with moving around existing staff members.


     He said he expected it to be a long process to fully staff the entire new jail facility, which he said would require a total of 60 correctional officers. The freeze just lengthens an already lengthy process.


     Loera added his immediate needs are to fill 10 deputy vacancies, which last week Chairman Kelley told Undersheriff Fred Miramontes his department would get if assurances had already been made.

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