Protests lead to debate over SLO Sheriff's Office budget



While the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors convened on June 8 to discuss a 2020-21 budget deficit that's projected to be worse than the last recession, protesters stood outside the board chambers to call for reductions to the Sheriff's Office budget, and law enforcement supporters flooded the meeting's public comment phone line to oppose any cuts to public safety.

SLO County is facing a $32 million to $56 million budget deficit in 2020-21 due to COVID-19 impacts. On June 8 and 9, county supervisors reviewed a cost reduction plan that slashes every county department's general fund support by 4 percent—except for the Sheriff's Office, the DA's Office, the Probation Department, and the Fire Department, which receive 1 percent cuts under the plan.

BUDGET FIGHT The SLO County Board of Supervisors faced pressure from residents to both decrease and increase funding to its law enforcement agencies. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • BUDGET FIGHT The SLO County Board of Supervisors faced pressure from residents to both decrease and increase funding to its law enforcement agencies.

The budget talks came on the heels of nationwide social unrest following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. To address systemic racism, protest leaders have called for defunding or downsizing police departments, which consume the largest share of local budgets, including SLO County's.

On June 7, nonprofit RACE Matters SLO called on residents to contact the county and ask that it reduce the Sheriff's Office budget, which is funded at more than $50 million. Organizers held a protest and march on June 8 outside the SLO County Government Center, posting a flyer online that read, "SLO County MUST divert funds from law enforcement and incarceration toward mental health and community nonprofits."

SLO County received 704 pages of written public comments for the budget hearings.

"San Luis Obispo needs to demilitarize and defund its policing," resident Ila Moncrief wrote in one letter. "This is an opportunity to focus general funds to community development and safe, affordable housing."

"I am writing to request that the budget for the Sheriff's Department and other police services be cut and allocated to anti-racist community services and programs," wrote Martine Lappé, a Cal Poly sociology professor. "Funds should be used to support health care, affordable housing, universal child care, anti-racist education in K-12 schools, scholarship programs for underrepresented groups, and to provide free anti-racist counseling and social work services in our community."

But as some community members wanted funds moved away from law enforcement, others demanded the opposite. Residents opposing any cuts to the Sheriff's Office wrote letters and left pre-recorded messages for the June 8 meeting.

"We are very, very against it," Michelle Norwood said in a pre-recorded comment. "We will be most unhappy with you if you even entertain a thought like that, especially right now. We are angry about this."

"We really don't have enough police officers as it is," added Frederick Bertram, in another message. "Because there's a few thousand people protesting ... there's 200 something thousand people in this county. And there's not enough sheriffs to really cover all the areas anyway. Our sheriffs are good sheriffs. Don't penalize them for something someone else did."

After the hours of public comment on June 8 and 9, the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve county officials' proposed $26.1 million cost-cutting plan. The plan slashes non-public-safety department budgets by a combined $5.5 million. It reduces the Sheriff's Office budget by about $500,000—a cut that still increases the department's funding above 2019-20 levels by about $1.5 million.

"My view is that after a lot of careful consideration, I think our admin office has worked very carefully with public safety and other departments to craft the first $26 million of what's going to be a very difficult path for us," 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson said at the meeting. "What we've got before us is a workable plan."

Fifth District Supervisor Debbie Arnold voted against the proposed budget, objecting to the 1 percent cuts to law enforcement.

"I don't think [their allocation] is enough," Arnold said. Δ


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