San Diego County will boost spending on public safety, social services

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher appeared virtually at a meeting last year of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors
County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher appeared virtually at a meeting of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors on May 19, 2020.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The county is raising its budget 7 percent to $7 billion as it builds behavioral health programs and recovers from pandemic


San Diego County’s public safety departments and its Health and Human Services Agency are expected to get more funding under a draft budget presented to the Board of Supervisors Wednesday, May 26.

The proposed spending hikes reflect the county’s focus on expanding behavioral health services, reorganizing parts of the criminal justice system and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With this budget and under your board’s leadership we’re really setting a new foundation that’s built on racial equity, social and environmental justice and sustainability,” Chief Financial Officer Ebony Shelton told the board.

Under the plan the county budget would grow to $7 billion, an increase of $480 million, or 7 percent. There are no proposed cuts to services, and the county expects to increase staffing by 660 full-time positions, Shelton said.

Public safety agencies will hire more nurses and mental health staff, she said, and staffing will increase for public works, land use, legal services, and community outreach and engagement operations.

The public safety group — including the county fire and sheriff’s departments, probation, district attorney, public defender and other agencies — would receive an additional $147 million this year and 273 new employees, said public safety general manager Holly Porter.

“Significant changes in the budget are mainly in the sheriff’s department, public defender and the district attorney’s office,” Porter said.

The sheriff’s department requested 255 new positions, the public defender would add 28 and the district attorney would add 15. The medical examiner and probation departments would also add positions, while child support services would eliminate 30 vacant slots.

Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Jim Desmond signaled that they would direct additional staffing to county fire to bolster fire companies staffed with only two fire fighters per shift.

“As we continue to move forward, I would like to see us hit the minimum of three and, ideally, four,” Fletcher said. “It’s a little concerning. Even if there are just three stations with two people, that would seem to be a little low and maybe something we can consider as we move forward.”

The public defender office called for increased staffing, noting that it will be hard-pressed to manage the caseload that piled up during the pandemic, when court proceedings slowed down but homicide and death penalty cases rose, said Public Defender Randy Mize. His office currently has 130 homicide cases and more than 700 felony trials to handle, he said.

“The backlog of thousands of cases that were derailed during the pandemic are the public defender’s highest priority,” Mize said. “It’s been difficult to investigate serious cases, such as homicides and death penalty cases. Thus we have been able to settle relatively few of those type of cases during the pandemic; however we continue to be assigned many of these type of new cases.”

District Attorney Summer Stephan also asked for new staff members, noting her office’s work on programs to reduce overly harsh sentences filed under older laws as well as its efforts to investigate cold cases and deal with backlogs of serious violent crimes.

“We have a backlog of 209 homicides,” she said. “We also have 280 cases pending trial for sexual assault. These are very serious, and people depend on us to do the job.”

The sheriff’s department also asked for new staff to operate several living units at Rock Mountain Detention Facilities, address medical and mental health issues in the jail system and build an enforcement team to handle unlicensed cannabis operations.

The county Health and Human Services Agency focused on COVID-19 response over the past year, said Director Nick Macchione. It organized systems to test, trace and treat COVID-19 infections, rolled out vaccinations, controlled other infectious diseases such as hepatitis, tubercolosis and HIV, and provided safety net services, he said.

“I don’t think any agency has been tested the way health and human services has,” Fletcher said. “If you think about it, a global pandemic that has never happened in our lifetime, the incredible work that our public health teams had to do … has been tremendous.”

The agency is proposing to add $211 million and 311 new positions, he said.

In the next year it plans to expand a program designed to strengthen families to keep children at home and to place foster children with family and improve children’s educational outcomes.

The agency also will seek solutions for San Pasqual Academy, to enable it to continue to offer services to foster youth and other children, according to a presentation to the board.

— Deborah Sullivan-Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune