A sign for the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office
Tthe Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office has exceeded budget by $20 million annually for deputy overtime pay due to lack of staffing. File photo.

This year, a multimillion-dollar deficit won’t just threaten Santa Clara County’s essential public services — it will force county leaders to reckon with a decade-long overspending crisis in the Sheriff’s Office.

Since 2013, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office has exceeded its budget by millions of dollars annually — and roughly $20 million last year — for deputy overtime pay, forcing county leaders to cover the overruns from general funds, according to a Jan. 17 report by the county budget director. But that is no longer doable with the budget deficit’s unexpected increase. To resolve the issue, county leaders say they will have to balance deputy hiring with the need to cut services.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors cut 600 vacant positions last year to save money as leaders anticipated a $158 million budget deficit going into 2024-25 year. That’s since jumped to $250 million.

“That’s no longer an issue of, ‘Oops! I bought an extra pair of shoes,'” County Supervisor Sylvia Arenas said at a Feb. 6 meeting where the board approved additional spending. “This is a big deal.”

Sheriff Bob Jonsen said the pace of overtime costs will continue despite budget cuts, as long as deputies have to stretch their hours to cover for fewer workers.

“It’s common to just take the vacant positions and cut them from the budget,” Jonsen told San José Spotlight.”Say the supervisors want to save $5 million and cut 40 positions. Those 40 positions have job requirements that we still have to fill. But now we don’t have the salary savings associated with those vacancies to even offset the overtime. That inflates the number even more.”

Budget cuts that reduced the number of correctional officers in 2022, for example, brought an increase in overtime from $20 million in 2021 to $25 million, according to the county budget report. Last year, correctional and field deputies still racked up roughly $20 million in overtime.

Compounding the problem, according to the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association of Santa Clara County, is that existing deputies find the overtime untenable and have considered leaving the department, making a bad situation even worse.

The union said 36% of its members, as of January, indicated they’re planning to leave the sheriff’s office in the next two years. The union also provided numbers showing the department lost 182 workers since 2020, largely due to retirements and overtime demands.

Local 911 data highlights the problem, according to union documents. In East San Jose, response times went up from 10 minutes to 14 minutes when between March 2020 and March 2023. The problem is more drastic in South County where the  response times went up from 15 minutes to 25 minutes.

“The loss of … more than a third of our department has had a devastating impact on the entire sheriff’s office and has crippled our ability to provide our residents with the same level of service no matter where they live,” Marcus Barbour, union president, told San José Spotlight.

Mandatory overtime has also created a morale issue, Barbour said.

“We need an immediate solution to prevent more deputies from leaving,” Barbour said.

Overtime dilemma

At a February meeting, budget overtime costs prompted county supervisors to approve an additional $14.2 million in combined spending for field deputies and correctional officers. Supervisors unanimously approved $3.5 million in hiring incentives for sheriff academy graduates, as retention rates present a profound challenge.  This includes incentives for officers brought on from other law enforcement agencies, which means they are in the field faster.

But the costs can no longer be ignored, as county officials are forced to weigh which public services to prioritize.

“That means some departments will see potentially greater cuts than others,” Supervisor Susan Ellenberg told San José Spotlight. “The vacancies in the sheriff’s office are making a lot of our work much more difficult.”

From 2021 through 2023, 134 out of 153 hired recruits ended up graduating from the academy as deputies in the field and in the jails and courts, according to data provided by the sheriff’s office.

It’s not uncommon for recruits to drop out during the training, sheriff’s office spokesperson Felicia Segura said.

“During the academy there are cuts due to not meeting either physical or academic criteria. Or it could be personal reasons, as maybe the recruit thinks, ‘This might not be for me anymore,’ or family reasons,” Segura told San José Spotlight.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected]m or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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