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Sonoma County sheriff’s public budget message sparks feud with Sonoma County supervisors

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick’s decision last week to go public amid an ongoing dispute over tentative cuts to his budget has irked county supervisors, who say they won’t be forced into sparing his agency from pandemic-induced cuts every department is being asked to make.

In a video posted Thursday afternoon to the Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page, Essick warned of the elimination of his office’s helicopter program, the closure of two substations and the risk of delayed homicide and sexual assault investigations if he was forced to impose more than $14 million in cuts to the department’s $184 million budget.

Essick said he has no choice but to recommend those cuts to match the mandate handed down by county leaders. The video was meant to share details about the budgeting process and its potential fallout for the department, he said in a phone interview.

“This is about public transparency and the budget process,” Essick said.

But several supervisors accuse the first-term sheriff of playing politics and trading on fear.

“He is bullying the Board of Supervisors through social media,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “He’s also using social media to scare the public at a time when we need the public’s trust more than ever. Shame on him.”

The cuts Essick described are the result of a request County Administrator Sheryl Bratton made to all county department heads seeking proposals for spending reductions to help the county close a $45.7 million hole in the county’s $1.79 billion budget. Bratton said that key context – that the cuts were an across-the-board sacrifice – was left out of the sheriff’s video. The cuts, officials said, weren’t meant to single out the sheriff.

“I think each department could have gone onto Facebook and said, ‘Look at what the county is making me do,’” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, the board chair. “We are all scrambling to try to sustain services, identify our essential services and work with all departments to minimize impacts.”

Essick, an elected official, is the only department head to have taken the budget fight public, marking the latest volley from a sheriff who in May declared unilateral opposition to county health orders and last week sought county funding for an outside legal review that could have led to a lawsuit challenging a law enforcement oversight measure that the Board of Supervisors placed on the November ballot.

Gorin, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the board vice chair, and Zane, the board’s senior incumbent, said Essick’s video was unlikely to convince them to spare the Sheriff’s Office, where $14 million amounts to about 8% of the department budget, about half of which is drawn from the county general fund, the largest source of discretionary spending.

“I am never persuaded by political posturing, which is how I view this,” Hopkins said. “I’m persuaded by data, by numbers, by thoughtful conversations with constituents that are based on reality – not a particular view of reality.”

The cuts proposed by Essick would eliminate more than 26 jobs, 14 of them currently filled. Affected positions include those in the helicopter program, staffing at the two substations and jail division jobs.

In his video, and in the phone interview Monday, Essick tallied the loss of more than 100 department jobs in the past decade, including 32 deputies and 45 correctional deputies. In recent years, the department has struggled to fill vacant positions, particularly in the jail, which has operated for an extended period of time under mandatory overtime provisions.

The result is a Sheriff’s Office that is lean, Essick said during a Board of Supervisors meeting in late July, reiterating the point in his Facebook video, where he called the potential budget cuts "painful.“

“It’s even more painful given our losses over the past decade,” Essick said. “This year, as we contemplate cuts, it’s important to understand there is no fat to trim.”

Although the County Administrator’s Office requested general fund spending cuts of up to 10%, along with other reductions, elected department heads such as the sheriff, district attorney and others have wide latitude for the shape of their own budgets.

For Essick, that means an attempt to spread the tentative cuts across several high-dollar programs while preserving what he calls the core function of a sheriff’s office: operation of the jail and the patrol division. Programs such as the highly visible Henry 1 helicopter may have to be sacrificed as a result.

“Although the helicopter is great – it’s a force multiplier – it’s also very expensive,” Essick said. “And it’s a luxury most law enforcement agencies do not have, particularly law enforcement agencies our size.”

Henry 1 has been a mainstay of the department for 45 years. Along with law enforcement operations, it is deployed for search and rescue missions and occasionally to help with firefighting.

“Getting deputies to a 911 call in the middle of the night is more important than having a helicopter,” he said in the interview.

But in his video, Essick said cutting the helicopter program will mean fewer people are rescued. Closing Sheriff’s Office substations in Guerneville and the Sonoma Valley will hinder response times, he said.

At the close of the video, Essick urged the department’s Facebook followers to share the post, and he said residents who want to get involved could contact the Board of Supervisors, with information provided on the screen.

Though Essick noted Monday that he had not called on residents to contact the board, multiple department posts on the Facebook posting did urge commenters to take that step.

“If someone wants to take action on that, that’s up to them,” Essick said.

The three supervisors acknowledged receiving a flurry of emails in the aftermath of the video. Supervisor James Gore could not be reached before deadline for comment. Supervisor David Rabbitt is on vacation.

If the board accepts the sheriff’s proposed budget, Essick said the proposed cuts would take effect Nov. 3, indefinitely grounding Henry 1 before officials consider next steps, including the potentially selling the $5.5 million aircraft that was put into service in August 2018.

It has been on the chopping block before, including in 2012, when it was spared partly through private donations used to form the nonprofit foundation Friends of Henry 1 amid budget cuts that came as a response to the Great Recession.

Such a rescue may be necessary again, as a majority of the board in phone interviews Monday was not inclined shield the department from cuts being asked of others.

“We all stood behind you when you said, ‘I’m going to evacuate half this county,’” Zane said in an interview, recounting the board’s support of Essick’s order during the Kincade fire. “Now, you’re not only not supporting us, but you’re declaring war on us. Very, very poor judgment.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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