Sheriff Donny Youngblood discusses issues facing his department today
Over the last few years, the Kern County Sheriff's Office has had to manage a precarious balance in light of a fiscal crisis impacting all county departments, as well as dealing with a difficult situation as new state laws tying law enforcement's hands.
Among the issues that Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood has had to contend with include the difficult decision to shut down the Ridgecrest jail, a shortage of deputies and state laws he has opposed and noted to have impacted public safety.
Youngblood stopped by the Daily Independent's office on Friday, March 23 to talk about some of those issues, especially ones that have come up during an election year.
KCSO faces a few issues, including a lack of deputies and that deputies are among the lowest paid in California. Deputies assigned to areas like Ridgecrest have had to be assigned to cover a gap in the Kern River Valley, creating increases in response time.
Youngblood noted everything circles back to the county's fiscal crisis.
“We are in a fiscal emergency in the county," Youngblood said. "The board of supervisors has a four-year plan and we are just entering year three of getting out of that fiscal emergency. The price of oil was $100 a barrel and it dropped to $30, and we've been living with that."
Because of those the fiscal crisis, staffing has been impacted and it's affected deputies' morale, he said.
"It's affected morale, number one," The unions have endorsed my opponent (Chief Deputy Justin Fleeman) because of that," Youngblood said. "Deputies are frustrated, they haven't had a raise in eight or nine years, they're the lowest paid and we are short of staff. Our deputies are among the lowest paid in the Central Valley, so they are leaving our agency and lateraling to other agencies where they can make more money, and we haven't been able to fill those vacancies because of a lack of money."
For the East Kern area, including Ridgecrest/Inyokern, Mojave and Rosamond, there are a number of shortages. Ridgecrest has at least one vacant position, and Mojave five.
Youngblood said some things are looking up, like the recent graduation of an academy. But those new graduates need to go through additional training before being assigned on their own.
"When they are through with their field training, we will backfill positions that we have vacant," Youngblood said. "We will take those people and spread them throughout the county and start another academy to try and catch up. We got so far behind in filling those vacancies. It takes a year: once you go through the process of recruiting to the time it takes to hand them a set of keys."
He added he can see their point of view.
"From a deputy's standpoint, the sheriff's their boss, so I have to bear that responsibility that we can't get more staff or money," Youngblood said. There's nothing that I can do to change that. I can tell you this, if I were sheriff or someone else were sheriff, that's not going to change the amount of money we are getting from the board, because we have limited funds in the county."
Youngblood said he does have the board's support to fill vacant positions when the money becomes available.
He said there's a balance that must be addressed, however.
"Remember though that flip side of the coin is that deputies need a pay raise, because if they don't get one, we just put them through an academy, they are here for a year and then and they go somewhere else like the Ridgecrest Police Department. It used to be the other way around," Youngblood said. "There's a balance when you're sheriff. The unions want both more pay and deputies. Some deputies want more staff and some deputies want a pay raise, but for the sheriff, it's a balance of those two things."
The Ridgecrest Jail
It's also led to the 2016 decision to close the Ridgecrest Jail, requiring deputies and Ridgecrest police officers to transport suspects to either Bakersfield or Mojave for booking. The jail closure was the tip of the iceberg, according to Youngblood.
"When we closed the Ridgecrest jail, that was the beginning," Youngblood said. "When we did that, I said 'You think that is bad, just wait because we aren't going to have the money to fill deputy positions.'"
KCSO closed the jail in June 2016 after the department's operational budget was cut. While Youngblood heads the sheriff's department as an elected official, including final budget decisions, the department's funding ultimately must be approved by the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
The cuts also forced the closure of substations and the disbanding of some KCSO units.
Youngblood said he'll make the case to the board and County Administrative Officer — the county's top staff person — for reopening the jail. But it might not happen this next fiscal year. There is another option, but it depends on a set of variables, including the planned — and controversial — Timbisha Shoshone casino to be built in Ridgecrest.
A contingency is, if they build a casino here [in Ridgecrest], we will require dedicated funding for that jail from the casino," Youngblood said. "If we can get dedicated funding from the casino, those funds would be directed only toward the jail. If we close the jail, we lose the funding, so there would be no reason to close it. That's one of the options we are looking at, but we don't know if the casino is looking at."
Planes and helicopters
Youngblood has received a lot of criticism lately for his department's operations of helicopters and a plane.
KCSO operates a plane and a handful of helicopters, something Fleeman and others have advocated getting rid of to help reduce costs and shift that funding elsewhere.
Youngblood said that the vehicles all serve a significant role in the sheriff's office. And getting rid of them isn't exactly easy.
"Three of the five helicopters are military surplus, so you can't just sell those — they have to go to another law enforcement agency," Youngblood said.
The airplane in contention, you have to understand where it came from. It belonged to the fire department, not the sheriff's office and they still owed $2 million on it and had to make payments from the general fund.
"The fire chief said if you take this, you can pay for it with asset forfeiture, which is drug [seizure] money," Youngblood said. "We freed up $2 million in the general fund by taking the airplane, we paid it off with asset forfeiture money."
Youngblood noted there have been opinions he uses the plane on a regular basis.
"I've been accused that that's my airplane. I've been in that airplane about 18 percent of the time since we got it five years ago — I've been in it eight hours a year since we got it, and that's not very much," Youngblood said.
Instead, Youngblood said KCSO uses the plane for things like transporting deputies to areas where an important suspect or witness might be located.
"When you have a homicide suspect who was arrested in Little Rock, Arkansas, it's hard to get from Bakersfield to Little Rock quickly. You have to go through LA and it can take a long time, sometimes two days," Youngblood said. "You want to talk to a homicide suspect as quickly as possible or they're not going to talk.
He said it's expensive, around $680 an hour, but he stressed it's important to get a team to a location in time before a suspect changes his mind.
"There are have been times when we've flown someone from the district attorney's office and two or three homicide detectives to a location so we can interview them now," he said.
KCSO also uses its helicopters for various purposes. It uses two MD 500 helicopters, which Youngblood said were bought new in 1986. Both are used for night patrol in Bakersfield and search and rescue operations in the mountain and desert areas expect during the summer.
For summertime mountain operations, KCSO utilizes a Huey the organization bought 10 years ago; the vehicle also transports the sheriff's SWAT teams.
"We use them for a variety of things, not just one particular thing," Youngblood said. "Could you sell all of them? Yes, eventually. Could you sell buildings or half your patrol cars? Yes."
But he added doing doesn't do much. Sell two helicopters to keep the Ridgecrest Jail open, and the county still ends up with a shuttered facility and two vehicles gone.
"That jail is ongoing costs, and you'd be selling your assets for one-time costs," he said. "You can't do that for personnel."