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Board of Supes to sheriff: Try again on your budget figures.

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Just about six weeks ago, I wrote a column on the bizarre relationship the Monterey County Board of Supervisors enjoys with Sheriff Steve Bernal and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office. The intro went as follows: “The sheriff (an elected official) doesn’t answer to the supervisors (also elected officials), but since they hold the purse strings to the sheriff’s $100-million-plus budget, he has to go to them whenever he needs more money.”

And on April 6, the day the Board of Supervisors heard from county department heads during a full day-plus of hearings in advance of deciding what would be funded for the new fiscal year, Bernal and Undersheriff John Mineau showed up to say, hey, we need more money.

The subject arose six weeks ago because the supes were trying to figure out how to handle a sheriff who has made it clear that while he might need them for budgetary reasons, he doesn’t answer to them. And that subject arose because on Jan. 18, the third murder suspect in about 14 months took a jump off a roof and a walk out of the jail, where he enjoyed a few days of freedom before turning himself back in. Board chair and District 4 Supervisor Wendy Root Askew had invited the sheriff to speak to the board in open session about the escape, and about the response to the escape, which didn’t include informing residents of the neighborhood around the jail, and the sheriff declined. District 1 Supervisor Luis Alejo sent a letter to the Grand Jury, asking them to look into the jail policies and protocols; the sheriff said, great, looking forward to cooperating with them.

When it came time for Bernal and Mineau to ask for $12.2 million to be added to the department’s budget to pay for, among other things, new positions that include a principal office assistant (at $158,914) and capital improvements that include new Motorola radios (at $1.2 million) and to fill a number of vacant positions (at a total of $4.1 million), lets just say the supervisors took a minute to remind them of the escapes, and of the perils of declining to answer questions, and then they told Bernal and Mineau to try again on the budget requests.

“This is certainly the largest request out of any department so far… it’s time to ask, considering we had three jail breaks in an 18-month period, I don’t see anything about how we’re going to address the concerns from the Board of Supervisors and the public,” Alejo said. “We’ve had these conversations in the past about respecting your ability to manage your department, but at the same time, we approve your budget.”

And one by one, the rest of the supes chimed in. From John Phillips: “This is a lot. I’d like to think about this a little bit more.” From Chris Lopez: “Those are a lot of big numbers on a big spreadsheet that just got tossed up there and I’m going to need a little more time understanding your request.” Mary Adams also asked for more time to review.

Askew, though, went further. She named off just a few of the other needs the supervisors had heard from other departments and what the benefits to the public would be: a $250,000 request from Child Support Services to generate $9 million in collections and support the basic needs of children; a $400,000 ask that could give all children free access to all county parks; extending the county’s health insurance program, Esperanza Care, to 2,000 people at a cost of $1 million, to name just a few.

“My ask would be to the sheriff and undersheriff to go back and take a scalpel to what you’re looking at in the context of the choices we’re facing sitting here at the dais,” Askew said. “If we support what you’re asking for, look at where those funds won’t be available.”

From Bernal and Mineau, there was a lot of positivity: Absolutely we’d love to come back and talk to you again. Our phone lines are always open, so are our doors.

In the background, there’s a national conversation taking place on policing, and on law enforcement budgets and power. The supervisors heard public comment from a number of activists who asked the county budget to better align toward community needs. So for Bernal and Mineau, it’s back to the drawing board. They have been invited to come back and re-present their wish list.

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