Emily Jo Cureton, The Triplicate

Savings seen from union concessions, marijuana fines

A policy aimed at balancing budgets could change the way marijuana crimes are sentenced in Del Norte County.

On Tuesday the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve a $105 million annual budget, which includes funding for five formerly imperiled positions with the Sheriff's Office and the jail.

The jobs were eliminated at the board's Sept. 11 meeting. Since then, a proposal to seek more fines and less jail time when prosecuting pot growers has changed the budget's bottom line, along with employee concessions and anticipated revenue from hefty contracts for jailing inmates from other counties.

Based on a state law that District Attorney Jon Alexander has said he now plans to utilize in Del Norte, "eradication fees" would come from the pockets of convicted marijuana growers to the Sheriff's Office, to recoup costs associated with drug investigations, asset forfeiture, marijuana eradication and prosecution.

The Sheriff's Office would assess its own costs, and submit a number to the District Attorney's Office, which would then petition the judge, who ultimately decides if a convicted marijuana grower should pay the eradication fee, go to jail, or both.

"We consider this an economic crime which is appropriately dealt with through economic penalties," Alexander told the Triplicate. "There's a lot of different ways to exact punishment. We have been looking too long at just warehousing people in jail ... I think I have a sworn duty to bring what I believe to be appropriate punishment to the table."

In a Sept. 19 letter to the county, Alexander wrote that in addition to mending busted budgets, fining busted growers could also free up jail space for "those individuals who pose a greater threat to our community."

Some $50,000 in revenues from eradication fees are included in the Sheriff's Office's budget for 2012andndash;13.

"We essentially took about 10 percent of what could possibly be recouped and put that in the budget," County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina said from his cell phone on Friday. Like most other county employees, he was out of the office for a furlough day.

Like last fiscal year, 10 county furlough days are included in the 2012-13 budget, equal to a 4 percent pay cut for employees and elected officials.

This week, the Sheriff's Employee Association, which does not take furloughs, proposed contributing an additional 8 percent of its members' wages to the California Public Employee Retirement system, freeing up $91,000 for the county.

These 11th hour efforts have put the county's proposed deficit spending for public safety back on par with last year, despite sweeping changes in how the jail and the probation departments are funded by the state through a process known as public safety realignment.

As it stands, some $2.7 million of the county's $25.5 million general fund will go into jail and sheriff's operations. That's about $140,000 more than last year.

The final budget hearing on Tuesday at 11 a.m. in the Flynn Center will be the end of a months-long road for county officials charged with hammering out a balanced budget every year, regardless of the havoc that revenues, reforms and politics may wreak.

"The November elections include significant financial ramifications to the state and potentially local governments ... The county is faced with adopting a budget without the confidence that the state budget will be unchanged," Sarina wrote in a report to supervisors, which credits recently enacted state pension reform with enabling employees to increase retirement contributions in lieu of taking more furloughs and pay cuts.

"This process is a long, drawn out one that affects a lot of people. We appreciate the assistance of the employees and the department heads and the elected leaders. In this case the employees have stepped up all the way across, " Sarina said Friday.

Reach Emily Jo Cureton at ecureton@triplicate.com.