El Dorado County Homeless Outreach Team to stay, despite close call
July 11, 2018
El Dorado County Sheriff John D'Agostini drove a hard bargain at the Board of Supervisors end-of-June meeting, putting the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) on the line.
A week earlier, the county's 2018-19 recommended budget was approved. Within it, D'Agostini was allocated the funds to hire four new sheriff's deputies, in part to help backfill deputies currently serving on the HOT. At the June 26 meeting, the board was asked to authorize the movement of $348,000 from General Fund contingency to the Sheriff's Office for the positions.
But D'Agostini took to the podium that day, saying he couldn't wait until September to have the additional staff. After asking his records department what they'd need to get caught up on paperwork — including warrants, restraining orders and concealed carry permits — D'Agostini told supervisors they'd need three more staff members and three months to break even in the workload.
In an email to county Chief Administrative Officer Don Ashton shortly after the budget was passed June 18, the sheriff's office said the HOT team would be disbanded July 1, to allow those deputies to help with backed-up records.
D'Agostini said when he presented this option, he was accused of "stamping (his) feet and throwing a temper tantrum." But he asserted his department remains at circa 2003 staffing levels, while the county population — and all the demands that come with it — has grown 11 percent since then.
"Looking at the divisions I have, looking at what's mandatory … HOT is none of those," D'Agostini said. "HOT is something we've developed … to deal with a lot of issues that, frankly, were impacting all of you and impacting us because we were getting all the calls."
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To maintain HOT's continual operation, supervisors voted unanimously to transfer $90,000 from the Rural Counties fund — separate from the General Fund — and authorize D'Agostini to hire more sheriff's technicians. In September, when numbers from the fiscal year and the state budget are finalized, the county will revisit the initial Sheriff's Office allocation.
At the meeting, D'Agostini asked two members of the HOT, deputies Jason Bloxsom and Chris Macras, to shed light on the team's functions and accomplishments.
According to Macras, who has been with the team since it started about a year ago, the program focuses on rehabilitation versus re-housing the homeless.
"The success rate with rehab is much higher than if it was just to be a simple housing issue," Macras said. "You can house a heroin addict every week and they're going to be homeless the next week because they're addicted to heroin."
Macras said the team has housed 120 people to date — including some who didn't stick with it — and has assisted 250 people with things like getting ID and Social Security cards. Roughly 136 encampments countywide have dropped to 25 and the department recorded an almost 300 percent decrease in fire incidents, Macras said.
"We have developed relationships we didn't think would be possible to develop with the homeless community," Macras said.
District 5 Supervisor Sue Novasel commended Macras and the outreach team in general for their efforts, but added that the board never asked D'Agostini to disband the team to save money.
"That was not part of our decision … What you do is critical," she said. "What we were talking about was trying to get other funding. Look at your fee schedule and find out how to get better situated."
When county department heads face increased costs, Novasel explained, they are asked to do fee schedules to identify potential funding to cover those costs.
The discussion at times turned awkward — as District 4 Supervisor Michael Ranalli remarked — since D'Agostini, an elected official, was answering the call for a fee schedule from a board of elected officials.
However, Ranalli argued, the board can't tell what a department's financial needs are if a fee study isn't provided.
District 3 Supervisor Brian Veerkamp noted that the county faces several funding uncertainties like a possible gas tax repeal and the new $68 million public safety facility, which will house the sheriff's office.
"Unfortunately, this county's not just a sheriff's department," Veerkamp said. "We're out on a limb with the public safety facility. We don't know exactly where that annual payment is coming from."