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Budget hearings underway

As part of initial county budget discussions Tuesday, Sheriff Jay Varney proposed restructuring his upper-level command staff to eliminate the positions of a lieutenant and undersheriff, held by Michael Salvador, Varney’s opponent in election last year.

Varney told the board of supervisors his goal was to change the current hierarchy from five officers directly underneath his command, comprised of undersheriff and four lieutenants, to a staff of two commanders and two lieutenants in order to save taxpayer money.

“I realize it has impacts on employees, but I believe it allows me to offer the best level of service to the county,” Varney said. “It also allows me to bring on another deputy sheriff at mid-year thanks to those savings.”

According to data from the California State Controller's Office, Salvador earned a $106,722 salary in 2013 while a lieutenant was paid $99,030.

In the proposed 2015-2016 budget, the sheriff's department will receive a nearly $2 million increase in funding, from $9.2 million $11.2 million, though much of the money is focused on staff relocating to a new office by mid July.

Varney said his restructuring decisions – including funds for a dispatch supervisor – were based on increasing public safety through additional staff.

“The focus of this budget was to get as much sworn manpower back to the road, or towards the road, as possible,” Varney said.

Varney did not provide any names as to who will fill the restructured positions at the supervisors meeting, though he said several will likely be internal hires.

If approved as written in the county budge, the undersheriff and one lieutenant position will be eliminated on Jan. 1, 2016, and replaced with two sheriff's commander jobs.

Also included in the sheriff’s proposed fiscal allocations are negotiations with the Chawanakee Unified School District for a school resource officer. In a separate item Tuesday, the board also authorized staff to negotiate a building lease agreement with private companies for a county morgue to fulfill the sheriff's coroner duties.

A contract with Smith Manor Grace Chapel Manor in Madera was voided in April after one of its co-owners, Sharlane Smith, was arrested on 25 counts of fraud for years she allegedly overcharged the county for funeral services.

Several officials spoke during the board’s first day of budget discussions.

The board, as with the start of every fiscal year, will listen as department heads countywide make their case for requested funds, then decide whether to make changes before voting on approval of the 435-page document.

A copy of the proposed 2015-2016 budget is available at http://bit.ly/1SHQko6.

Among many of the fiscal document’s highlights are a recommended increase of more than $16.6 million in general fund expenditures, which may help restore a dramatic drop in services following a $12.3 million deficit in 2010.

Chief Administrative Officer Eric Fleming said through five years of diligent work and sacrifice by all levels of county staff – including suffering through furlough days and other cutbacks – the budget is balanced and provides for spending increases to areas like law enforcement and public health.

“We’re finally beginning to regain fiscal health as an organization,” Fleming said. “We need to continue to exercise fiscal restraint as we have learned to do so well over the last five years. If we do that, in time we’ll grow our revenues to hopefully provide additional funding for your board’s priorities.”

Around 28% of the county’s proposed spending, if approved, will go to welfare services, with almost 30% for public protection, such as law enforcement, 17.5% for health and sanitation, 9.5% for general government costs, 9.4% for roads and transit, and less than six percent.

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