SACRAMENTO — Chronically short of money to pay for everything from road repairs to jails, San Diego County now has the chance to pick up an easy $35 million a year from the state.
But the county might turn it down.
The money represents the annual windfall the county could receive if it opts to let the state take over most of the cost of trial courts, one of the county's most expensive programs.
But county officials say the offer, made in the form of legislation signed into law last month by Gov. George Deukmejian, might have some hidden pitfalls. Drafted behind closed doors at the end of the Legislature's 1987 session, the measure has several elements that give the county cause for concern.
Need Voter Approval
"It's a mixed blessing," said David Janssen, the county's assistant chief administrative officer. "We're pleased that the Legislature and the governor have finally done this. But they've done it in such a way that it may not be anything the county is going to benefit from."
The chief complaint county officials have with the deal is that it will require voter approval before they can spend the full windfall. That's because the extra money would push the county over the constitutional spending limit enacted by California voters in 1979.
Beyond that, the county, by accepting the state's offer, would have to agree to allow the state controller to determine the county spending limit. That task historically has been performed locally, and county officials want it to remain that way because they want the ability to figure the limit by whatever method allows them to spend the most money.
Another part of the deal would require the county to modify its split of property taxes with three cities--Encinitas, Solana Beach and San Marcos--which now get less than 10% of the taxes collected within their boundaries.
Finally, the county would have to agree to forfeit its right to claim reimbursement for certain programs that the state requires the county to perform but fails to fully fund. That change would cost the county about $1 million a year, officials say.
The spending limit could present the biggest obstacle. County officials tremble at the thought of going to the voters every four years for permission to spend a large chunk of their budget. But that's exactly what could happen under this plan.
Currently, the county is about $20 million below its Gann Limit, named for tax crusader Paul Gann, who authored the constitutional amendment California voters approved in 1979 to curb government spending. Each governmental entity has its own limit, based on how much was spent before 1979 and then adjusted upwards in connection with changes in population and inflation.
If the county's revenues exceed its spending limit, the surplus must be refunded to taxpayers, unless the voters agree to waive the limit for four years.
Under the new court-funding program, the state has agreed to pay the county $480,000 for each Superior Court judgeship and $474,000 for each Municipal Court position. The state will also begin reimbursing the county for most of the salaries of Municipal Court judges, as it already does for the Superior Court.
For San Diego, the total grant would come to about $59.6 million a year.
In return, the county, if it participates, must give the state all revenue collected from fees and fines paid to the courts, the county clerk and the marshal, as well as some other funds it was getting from the state. That amount comes to about $24.8 million, leaving a net gain for the county of $34.8 million.
John Sweeten, director of intergovernmental affairs for the county, said it's not clear yet how much, if any, of the $34.8-million windfall the county could spend without the voters' approval.
That ambiguity and several others make Sweeten uncertain about whether it would be worth it for the county to participate.
"The question is what is it going to cost us to make effective use of those revenues?" Sweeten said. "If the liabilities exceed the benefits provided by the bill, then that would certainly tend to lead us to a negative conclusion about what to recommend to the Board of Supervisors."
County Supervisor Leon Williams said he would object to the county joining the program without first obtaining voter approval to spend the extra money. And even if voters approve the first spending limit waiver, the process would leave the county and its services vulnerable to a change in voter attitudes by the time the second waiver is needed four years later.
By then, the stakes--and the potential tax refund--would probably be much higher. The courts would be secure because they would be assured of state funding.
But other programs, perhaps health and social services for the poor, for example, would likely become dependent on the money freed up by the state's funding of the courts and would have to be cut back if the voters balked.