Fresno County Sheriff Mims: More deputies, patrol vehicles needed

The Fresno BeeJune 9, 2014 

Funding more sheriff's deputies became a recurring theme during the first day of budget hearings Monday by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

Budget hearings began Monday morning and will continue Tuesday. County supervisors are shaping a $2.05 billion budget for 2014-15, the first budget that has come to supervisors as balanced in its recommended form in several years.

The morning session was spent discussing ways of re-distributing additional funding from bolstered budgets in the county's probation department and public defender's office. Supervisors also discussed a status quo district attorney's budget and a staff recommendation to delay moving forward quickly with a new district attorney's building.

Sheriff Margaret Mims kicked off the hearings by asking for 10 new deputies and 10 new patrol cruisers. The cost, she said, is about $1.38 million in the new budget year. The patrol vehicles need replacement, she said, with 57 deputies' vehicles exceeding more than 150,000 miles.

In addition, she said, the sheriff's office needs to replace 15 four-wheel-drive trucks at a cost of $750,000, Mims said. The sheriff's office does not have a vehicle replacement fund.

In response to Mims, the supervisors said they were open to adding deputies.

Supervisor Debbie Poochigian suggested four to six while Supervisor Phil Larson said he could endorse 14 new deputies and vehicles.

"Boots on the ground is what we need," said Larson.

He said he is concerned about response times for rural areas, especially those on the west side of the county, because of staffing shortages. Larson said the 14 deputies could be added throughout the year instead of all at once.

He cited last month's Salwasser shooting case, where farmer George Salwasser Jr. was shot and killed by a group of thieves trying to dismantle a vehicle on his property near Kerman.

"We're fortunate there haven't been more fatalities," he said.

The public defender's office and county probation, both in line for large increases -- 27 positions combined -- in Fresno County's budget, could become areas to take money to pay for new deputies. Poochigian suggested the board consider taking about $250,000 from each department's increase to help pay for more deputies.

The public defender's office is proposed to gain 17 positions -- including seven lawyers and four investigators -- and probation plans to add 10 correctional officers in its Juvenile Justice Center.

"I want to just remind this board that while it is a move in the right direction, it still does not leave us fully staffed," said Caren Anderson, an investigator with the public defender's office. She asked that the office be considered for additional funding if any becomes available.

Lawyers being added are in entry-level positions, but the public defender's office needs more senior lawyers with experience in complicated cases, said Scott Baly, president of the union representing public defenders. He said it's the defendants with the most complicated cases who remain in jail longest.

"We need more experienced lawyers in my office to represent people who have complicated and serious cases," Baly said. "We need more lawyers who can lead in our department and we need more lawyers who can manage."

In an email to supervisors, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jonathan Conklin supported additional lawyers for the public defender's and district attorney's offices.

Two supervisors were receptive to pleas for more lawyers.

Supervisor Judy Case McNairy said the public defender's budget has been slashed in recent years, leading to lengthy court delays. By adding staff, jailed defendants can get through the system and "allows us space in the jail for our officers on the street to bring people in that they believe have committed a crime ... so the system continues to work."

Supervisor Andreas Borgeas agreed, adding that he is unwilling to tap funds earmarked for the public defender to pay for more deputies.

At the recommendation of County Administrative Officer John Navarrette, supervisors also will consider a delay in moving forward with a new building for the district attorney's office to allow District Attorney-elect Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp to have a say in its planning and design. She will take over in January after defeating Elizabeth Egan in last week's election.

Navarrette said the county is still refining the costs for the project. He said he wants the new district attorney to understand the costs, options and let her prioritize her budget and office's needs.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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