Proposed Humboldt County cuts squeeze departments: DA, DHHS, public defender all warn cuts will carry consequences

Proposed Humboldt County cuts squeeze departments: DA, DHHS, public defender all warn cuts will carry consequences
Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard
Posted: 05/23/2011 02:30:13 AM PDT

Proposed Humboldt County cuts squeeze departments: DA, DHHS, public defender all warn cuts will carry consequences

While much of the county budget debate has swirled around impacts to the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, the proposed across-the-board cuts will pinch other departments as well.

The Humboldt County District Attorney's Office is contemplating a drastic scale-back of its Child Abuse Services Team, or CAST. The 8 percent across-the-board cut will mean the Department of Health and Human Services will be unable to leverage millions of dollars in matching state and federal programs and will have to scale back its focus to mandated programs.

The proposed cuts would also force the Public Defender's Office to lay off two senior attorneys, which would likely lead to the court appointing private attorneys to pick up some of the office's case load. That could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in added expenses for the county.

”We're looking at some major, major impacts,” said Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos. “I'm not trying to sound bleak but, candidly, I don't see a silver lining.”

At recent meetings held to gather public input, numerous speakers said the Sheriff's Office, which may also see a steep funding reduction from the state, should be insulated from cuts at all costs. What would it take to keep deputies on the streets, they asked.

Humboldt County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes told residents at a McKinleyville meeting that leaving out cuts to the Sheriff's Office would mean devastating

18 percent cuts for other county departments because it is -- by far -- the largest benefactor of the general fund.
Now, not only are other department heads scrambling to figure out how to lop 8 percent off their budgets -- many of which are also getting squeezed by state reductions -- they're also concerned about the county slicing a bit deeper.

Even at 8 percent, some say the cuts are penny wise and pound foolish.

Nine deputy public defenders recently penned a letter to the Times-Standard claiming that even the proposed cuts mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in added general fund expenses for the county.

To accommodate the proposed across-the-board cuts, the office is looking at laying off two senior attorneys, which would yield a maximum savings of about $275,000, according to the letter. However, the county is mandated to provide a defense attorney to anyone who cannot afford one, which simply leaves no wiggle room when it comes to the Public Defender Office workload. If the office doesn't have an attorney available to take on a case, the court will appoint a private attorney, billing the hourly rate of $65 to the county.

According to the letter, that could mean the county will end up spending as much as $675,000 over the course of the fiscal year simply to yield an upfront savings of less than half that.

”This shortsighted decision will cost us all money,” the letter states.

The letter also states the proposed budget would cause the office to immediately seek to be relieved from all cases in the Hoopa/Klamath/Trinity Court, as well as the Garberville Court, which would necessitate that anyone needing a public defender travel to court dates in Eureka.

Gallegos said his department is potentially looking at taking hits from all sides.

In addition to the proposed county cuts, he said his office will also potentially lose some $160,000 in state funding if a portion of the Vehicle Licensing Fee is not extended. Cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services will also impact the DA's CAST program, Gallegos said.

For some 15 years, DHHS has contributed about $280,000 to the ongoing operation of CAST, which comprises specially trained individuals from Child Welfare Services, the DA's Office, the DA's Victim Witness Assistance Program, local law enforcement agencies, Probation and other agencies. The idea is that the team is better able to investigate and prosecute child abuse allegations.

But this year, DHHS is taking a 17.4 percent reduction in state funding in addition to the proposed county cuts, which is strongly impacting its ability to leverage matching state and federal funds. Consequently, Director Phillip Crandall said, it has had to pull its funding of CAST, though it has pledged to keep allocating staff positions to the team.

”While we have historically provided that support for CAST because it's a valuable service and good for our children, we don't have sufficient funds to carry that,” Crandall said.

Gallegos said he's currently looking to supplant the money that traditionally came from DHHS. As things stand, Gallegos said, he will be able to keep CAST going, but he worries further cuts could put it in jeopardy.

As an example, Gallegos said that senior Deputy District Attorney Max Cardoza and Assistant Deputy District Attorney Wes Keat are planning on retiring this year. He said their salaries are in his proposed budget -- which comes in with an 8 percent cut -- but the county has a hiring freeze in place, and he's concerned the county may not approve refilling the positions.

If those positions were to wind up frozen, Gallegos said it would severely impact his office.

Both Crandall and Gallegos said CAST is a priority, but both stated it is not a state-mandated program, meaning at some point, it could be dropped due to cuts.

”We're going to look at every feasible option to keep CAST functioning,” Gallegos said.

Gallegos said he thinks it's important to remember that public safety is a joint effort that cuts across multiple departments. He said there's no question deputies are needed to enforce laws, but said prosecutors are also needed to bring offenders to justice, probation officers are needed to help ensure ex-convicts don't re-offend and DHHS officials are necessary to provide mental health services, investigate health code violations and protect children and vulnerable adults.

”It's a system that requires balance,” Gallegos said.

Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or tgreenson@times-standard.com.