Money seized largely from illegal pot farms cut in half the number of Mendocino County law enforcement jobs slated for elimination Tuesday. And legal marijuana gardens could help ward off future cuts to public safety.
Following a contentious daylong debate, Mendocino County supervisors voted Tuesday to reduce the number of proposed job cuts in the Sheriff's Office budget to seven from 14.
In return, Sheriff Tom Allman said he would spend an additional $257,000 of asset forfeiture funds — money collected primarily from marijuana busts — to offset his department's $600,000 overtime budget. The Sheriff's Office had already committed $200,000 in asset forfeiture funds to the overtime budget.
The moves are aimed at reducing an anticipated $1.3 million deficit in his budget without gutting public safety.
Officials are hoping that someday soon, revenue from legal marijuana also will contribute to public safety.
"Marijuana is here to stay. They want to help. They want to be legitimate," said Sheriff's Sgt. Randy Johnson, who oversees the new county program that issues permits allowing medical marijuana cooperatives to grow up to 99 plants.
It may just be the budget "miracle" county officials have been looking for, said Julia Carrera, the program's independent inspector.
Since the program was implemented in the spring, 18 medical marijuana cooperatives have paid the $1,050 application fee to have their gardens permitted by the Sheriff's Office, Carrera said.
The marijuana farmers pay for her inspection services, which cost $500 each, she said.
The number of permits issued could skyrocket once farmers are convinced that applying for a permit will not lead to a raid on their gardens.
The permits could generate more than $600,000 next year, Carrera said. But only one supervisor, John McCowen, was willing to bet on that income source.
"That's funny money," said Supervisor Kendall Smith.
County Auditor-Controller Meredith Ford said the county's $221.5 million budget already is balanced on "a wing and a prayer." She also warned that permit fees of any kind are limited to covering the county's cost of providing the service.
Balancing the Sheriff's Office budget is crucial to the county's financial well-being.
Law enforcement departments, which also include the jail, county prosecutors and defenders, comprise 53 percent of the county's $57.2 million discretionary budget, said county Senior Administrative Analyst Kyle Knopp.
Of those departments, only the Sheriff's Office is running a deficit, he noted. But the county's Mental Health department also is in dire financial straits.
Supervisors recently approved 25 layoffs in that department to help close its $3.5 million deficit.