It takes Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies a minute longer to respond to emergency calls in unincorporated areas, compared to calls for service in cities that contract with the department for police services, according to a newly released county audit.
The finding by the county's auditor-controller comes days after Supervisor Gloria Molina accused Sheriff Lee Baca of "stealing" police resources from residents in unincorporated areas, providing better service to contract cities than to unincorporated areas.
According to the new county audit, which examined the last fiscal year, it took deputies, on average, 4.8 minutes to respond to emergency calls in contract cities compared with 5.8 minutes in unincorporated areas.
Sheriff's officials said the extra minute was because neighborhoods in unincorporated areas are more spread out and harder to access and also because the department had to cut the number of deputies they were able to hire in the unincorporated areas.
But even before the audit was released, Molina accused the department of making unfair cuts to patrols in unincorporated areas. Forty of Los Angeles County's 88 cities contract with the sheriff's department.
About 1.7 million people live in those 40 cities, and about 1 million people live in unincorporated areas, according to the sheriff's department.
Baca defended patrol reductions in unincorporated areas, citing a big drop in the crime rate.
"We're not out of our recession as a county," Baca told the board last week. "We have the lowest crime rate we've had in 40 years."
Molina, however, reiterated her concern that unincorporated communities were being shortchanged.
"He's saying, 'Every time I need a little bit of money, I go into the unincorporated areas, steal a couple of patrol cars and then they make up the difference,"' Molina said of Baca.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky expressed similar concerns.
"You cannot tell me that the first place that the department has to cut ... is patrol," Yaroslavsky said. "I don't think they looked at the alternatives at all." He accusing Baca of trying to avoid the political ramifications of hiking prices for services in the contract cities. "Everything else is either contractually or internally politically, bureaucratically guaranteed. It's the unincorporated that's variable."
The board voted last week to hire a company to do a forensic audit of the sheriff's $2.8 billion department budget.
Yaroslavsky called for leaving "no stone unturned," saying it had been more than a decade since the board conducted a rigorous spending review.
The current audit -- which focused exclusively on patrols in unincorporated areas -- found that Baca provided 91 percent of promised patrol hours -- about half a million hours short -- to unincorporated neighborhoods, compared with 99 percent for cities and agencies that buy his services.
Sheriff's officials blamed the difference on deep budget cuts imposed by the board, causing the department to leave dozens of deputy positions unfilled. Adjusted for those cuts, the department was much closer to its goal, averaging 98.5 percent fulfillment of its pledged patrol hours, according to the audit, though unincorporated areas near Palmdale had a significantly lower 85.8 percent level.
Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe said that the unincorporated areas were subsidizing the contract cities, in part because the costs of special units like the Aero and Special Enforcement bureaus were being charged 100 percent to the unincorporated areas. Contract cities paid $371 million in 2011- 12 for services that cost the Sheriff's Department $552 million to provide.
The sheriff is barred by state law called the Gonsalves code from charging some costs to contract cities.
Based on Molina's recommendation, the board asked their lawyers to explore alternatives for providing services to the unincorporated areas.
"I'm proposing everything from private patrols to a special services district," Molina said. "We need to create accountability and I'm not so sure that the sheriff is listening to us." Floyd Hayhurst, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents sheriff's deputies, warned that private patrols would jeopardize public safety.
"They're not sworn, they're not trained properly," Hayhurst said of private security patrols. "Please don't jeopardize the residents' safety, the deputies' safety."
A report is supposed to be delivered to the board in three weeks.