This move caught everyone by surprise.
Sometimes criticized for being indecisive and waffling on major issues, the Plumas County Board of Supervisors delivered a strong message last week: There are no sacred cows when it comes to the county budget.
The board sent the message in the form of a politically risky decision to cut $800,000 from the county’s general-fund contribution to the sheriff and probation departments for the fiscal 2012-13 budget.
The cut is controversial for several reasons. The most obvious reason is public safety. Keeping its citizens safe usually ranks at the top of government priorities. And who could argue? If given the choice between having enough police and having enough books in the library, most people would pick public safety every time.
But the supervisors insist that cutting the sheriff’s budget by 6 percent and the probation department by 15 percent shouldn’t make the county less safe.
The sheriff and probation departments disagree. The sheriff said he might have to lay off six deputies because of the decision. The probation department said it would lose at least two officers. County probation chief Sharon Reinert called the budget cuts “irresponsible.”
And the board might not be finished cutting public safety funding. The supervisors are likely to cut funding to the county jail during their Monday, Sept. 10, meeting. The cut would be a bold slap at the recent Grand Jury report. The report called for the supervisors to find the money to upgrade the aging jail and hire additional guards.
Supervisor Jon Kennedy appeared to catch everyone by surprise — including his fellow supervisors — when he proposed the law-enforcement cuts. But Kennedy justified his decision by saying the sheriff and probation departments can find the money they need through other government sources, including grants. He said many essential county departments, which have already been cut to the bone, don’t have access to that kind of money.
Kennedy may have delivered the message, but all the board members voiced their support for it. They didn’t back down when Reinert and the assistant sheriffs said they would be forced to lay off officers.
In fact, the supervisors did the opposite. They challenged the sheriff and probation departments to make do with less, like the rest of the county. After two weeks of budget workshops, the supervisors said they had exhausted all other money-saving alternatives. They said cutting the law-enforcement budget was the last resort.
“We are in the worst-case scenario,” Supervisor Sherrie Thrall said. “We are at the point where we have to say to you: We only have this many dollars for you to figure out how to run your department.”
Kennedy said laying off officers shouldn’t be the knee-jerk reaction to the board’s decision. “If you guys want to make that decision, even if you have money aside, I can’t help you with that.”
The supervisors’ decision is going to be unpopular with many of us. But whether we agree or disagree, the board’s move sent a message that we expect from our leaders: They are willing to take the heat for making a tough decision because they believe they are doing the right thing for the county.
And they will definitely feel some heat over this one.