- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

REDDING, Calif. | Tim Amen pushes open the front door of the Shasta County jailhouse and steps into the sunshine, having served about half of his 48-hour sentence for drunken driving.

“It’s pretty nice I got out a day early but you know, no big deal, I guess,” he says as he beat a quick getaway down the sidewalk.

California’s budget crisis just dealt him a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, yet one more example of how a combination of fiscal stalemate, dysfunctional politics, a plunging credit rating and double-digit unemployment have left the Golden State looking pretty tarnished these days.

Mr. Amen is one of about 60 prisoners cut loose early since Sheriff Tom Bosenko started reducing the jail population about a week ago to save money — part of deep cuts in jobs and services under way in cities and counties across the state.


An entire floor of the three-story jailhouse will stand vacant, shrinking capacity from 381 inmates to about 230 in Shasta County, a rural community of about 180,000 people in the northern reaches of the Sacramento Valley.

Nearly 100 more inmates will be cut loose early by the time the third floor is completely emptied. The smaller capacity will then trigger ongoing early releases, freeing people locked up for burglary, theft, drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses.

Redding is by no means alone.

Local governments across California are laying off office staff and public-works crews, closing parks and playgrounds, reducing hours at libraries and calling off time-honored parades and festivals in a desperate drive to balance the books.

“It is going to be apparent to the public that we can’t provide services they are used to,” said Pamela Thompson, city attorney for the town of San Bruno, a bedroom community about 10 miles south of San Francisco.

Residents of San Bruno have been told to expect fewer non-emergency police and fire services, longer lines at city offices and dirtier city parks.

And the state’s fiscal woes are only expected to worsen, with the Obama administration signaling last week that a federal bailout was not in the cards.

“It’s obviously not an easy time for the state of California,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday. “We’ll continue to monitor the challenges that they have, but this budgetary problem, unfortunately, is one that they’re going to have to solve.”

California has the largest state economy in the country and also boasts the worst credit rating among the 50 states. State Controller John Chiang in May put the Golden State’s fiscal year 2009 budget deficit at $24.3 billion. A recent study by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities forecast that, given the state’s continued economic decline, the total budget gap for the year could reach nearly $36 billion — 35.5 percent of the state’s general fund.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers from both parties remain at loggerheads. A deadline for a budget deal came and went Monday without an agreement.

Not only is the state giving less to the cities and counties, but the governor has proposed raising local property taxes and gas taxes to help balance the state budget, provoking howls of protest from local officials.

A leaking bucket

In an interview, Sheriff Bosenko said some people arrested on first-time domestic-violence charges in Redding could get bounced out of the jail early, depending on what type of offenders are filling the cells at the time.

The jail has been filled to capacity for years.

“We’re still in business here,” the sheriff said. “The cops on the street are still bringing people in. We’re trying to let them out. It’s kind of like a bucket with a hole in it. So much water is running out and so much is running in.”

Capt. Don Van Buskirk, who helps run the jail, said he worried that the early-release policy would embolden criminals in the county.

“If the criminal people know there is no hammer behind [the law] and they are not going to stay in jail, our fear is crime will go up,” he said, adding that officials would take every precaution to keep repeat offenders and dangerous criminals off the streets.

Sheriff Bosenko also is eliminating 47 positions, about a fifth of the sheriff’s office, to achieve the 10 percent budget cut the Shasta County Board of Supervisors imposed on every department.

For the sheriff’s office, that meant a more than $3 million hit. The sheriff eliminated 22 vacant positions and laid off 25 workers, including 11 deputy sheriffs. He also canceled the department’s work-release program for inmates.

The moves rattled residents of Redding, the county seat and by far the largest town in the county with a population of about 90,000.

Leonard Silverman, owner of Four Winds Jewelry in Redding, had this advice: “Carry a bigger gun.”

“I guess it does worry me that things will get out of hand,” said Mr. Silverman, 62. “The economy is the worst I’ve seen it in 40 years.”

Grim numbers

Redding’s unemployment rate of 15.4 percent is one of the highest in the country. In a state once considered a jobs engine and market leader, the U.S. Labor Department recently reported California now boasts nine of the 13 U.S. metropolitan areas with the highest unemployment rates, topped by El Centro near the Mexican border with a 26.9 percent local jobless rate.

The FBI Uniform Crime Report last year showed a 22 percent increase in serious crime in Redding. Serious crimes rose 15 percent countywide and 30 percent in Anderson, a town about 10 miles south of Redding that has about 10,000 residents.

“The numbers are not surprising given our economy, given drugs, hard drugs such as methamphetamine, in the community,” Sheriff Bosenko said. “It is very much a public safety concern for myself and the citizens. I can see where they would be concerned about public safety.”

He warned that the reduced manpower at the sheriff’s office will result in slower response times for non-emergency crimes such as burglaries and thefts, and possibly slower response times for serious crimes in rural areas. Investigations also will take longer, he said.

“It is a huge concern for me,” Sheriff Bosenko said.

Shasta County Board of Supervisors Chairman Glenn Hawes said the sheriff made a calculated decision to target the cuts on the jail in order to rally public support for more budget dollars for law enforcement.

“That’s politics,” Mr. Hawes said. “He chose to cut the things that get the citizens the most concerned.”

He said Mr. Schwarzenegger was doing the same thing by proposing what the governor himself called “draconian” cuts to plug the $24.3 billion budget shortfall.

The Republican governor is at a standoff with the state legislature over his plan to balance the budget by slashing state employee salaries by 5 percent, closing most of the state parks and eliminating health care and college-aid programs for the poor. Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, but Mr. Schwarzenegger has had trouble winning support from fellow Republicans as well.

Mr. Hawes said he does not fault the sheriff, whom he counts as a friend, for angling politically to restore his budget. He blamed unfunded mandates from Sacramento with putting a stranglehold on the county budget.

“We don’t have any money for any more,” Mr. Hawes said. “I don’t know where we would have gone [elsewhere] and cut. … If you cut out mental health, you are really going to give the sheriff a lot more work. If you cut social services, you are really going to give the sheriff a lot more work.”

He said the police departments in Redding and Anderson, though facing their own force reductions, would continue to enforce the law where most of the county’s residents live.

“I just have to wait and see,” Mr. Hawes said. “I think we are going to get more citizen patrols and volunteers on the force. They help a lot. Their eyes are as good as anybody’s.”

Sheriff Bosenko defended his decision to target the jail for budget cuts.

“If I keep the jail open and keep work-release open, that means that $3 million cut I have to take has to occur somewhere else in my department,” he said. “That means I would have to take the cuts from patrol and detectives.”

He said it would have meant reducing the patrol shift from the current 11 officers to just three or four policing the 3,800-square-mile county.

“It is not a matter of casting blame. There were difficult decisions to make,” Sheriff Bosenko said.

In Sacramento County, the sheriff says he is being forced to lay off 370 employees, including 300 sworn officers. That’s more than the entire patrol service for the 994-square mile county that is home to 1.3 million residents and the state capital.

“If you’re a victim of a crime, if your house is burglarized, your property is gone, we’re not going to do anything for you, nothing,” Sheriff John McGinness told the local Fox TV affiliate two weeks ago when announcing the $80 million in cuts.

“If you’re the victim of an armed robbery, there’s little we can do. That’ll get at least some response, but very little in terms of investigative follow-up,” he said.

Sheriff Bosenko gave a similar warning.

County residents “are going to have less law enforcement. Investigation of crime will take longer and our response times will take longer,” he said.

Deep-seated woes

By all accounts, California’s budget breakdown has been brewing for years.

The crisis came to a head last month when voters shot down a series of ballot measures that would have helped bridge the state budget shortfall with higher taxes and new borrowing, including a new lottery scheme to bring in about $5 billion and the diversion of taxes dedicated to early-childhood and mental health programs.

Mr. Schwarzenegger warned voters that rejecting the ballot initiatives would trigger “draconian” cuts, but he was decisively repudiated at the polls.

The governor then made good on that threat, proposing to close 200 of California’s 279 state parks and ax the state’s widely envied college-grant program, which would make it the first state to eliminate student aid for lower-income residents while raising tuition.

Other suggested savings include selling off historic landmarks such as Alcatraz Prison, slashing state employee salaries by 5 percent, ending a program that provides medical care to nearly 100,000 low-income children and putting scores of other programs on hold.

Some California politicos are quick to blame voters for the predicament. But budget analysts say lawmakers deserve some of the blame as well. They shifted the tough budget decisions to the ballot box and now are stymied when voters threw the problem back in their laps.

Others blame the state’s Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 law approved by voters that requires a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers to pass a tax increase. The requirement, coupled with a state constitution that mandates a two-thirds vote to pass the budget, has virtually ensured a partisan standoff in Sacramento.

Democrats blame Republicans for using the two-thirds rule to block tax increases. Republicans blame Democrats for using the same rule to thwart spending caps. Both sides have failed to tackle the state’s structural budget deficit as spending spiraled out of control.

Back in Redding, Sheriff Bosenko said all sides have to learn basic lessons about economics and budgeting.

“California is one of the highest taxes states in the nation. So, I don’t think it is a matter of taxes,” he said. “It is a matter of living within your means.”

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