A vote by the Moorpark City Council this week means that all 10 cities in Ventura County have joined in a legal tussle with Ventura County over disbursement of drunk-driving fines.
The cities want the county to fork over a portion of the estimated $1.2 million that the county collects each year from convicted drunk drivers. They say the money should be used to beef up local police patrols.
State Law Cited
The county, however, maintains that it is entitled to keep all the money because it finances a probation program for convicted drunk drivers. A state law allows counties to keep the money in their general fund if they launch such programs.
But the cities maintain that the county's program provides only a minimal benefit and say that they intend to hire an attorney and file suit against the county to recoup a percentage of the drunk-driving funds.
"The county's formal probation program starts out with a group meeting and continues with a mail follow-up. The cities don't see that as formal probation, and that's the essence of our lawsuit," said Susan Cauldwell, an administrative analyst for Moorpark.
Probation Officers' Salaries
Until Sept. 1, 1987, when the county started its probation program, the cities kept about 85% of the money collected from convicted drunk drivers. That money now goes toward the salaries of 12 new probation officers hired by the county to track drunk-driving convictions. About three of those officers work with first-time offenders, county officials said.
Under the probation program, first-time offenders attend a group meeting and are then tracked by mail and internal reports, whereas repeat offenders must meet monthly with probation officers, said Vince Ordonez, an analyst with the County Administrative Office.
He estimated that the county spends $1.1 million annually on the program, not including court costs and some administrative costs.
But whatever the expense, he said, state law allows the Board of Supervisors to allocate the drunk-driving fines as it sees fit.
"The state doesn't mandate that the money be used specifically for drunk-driving-related programs. All we're doing is going by what the intent of the law is," Ordonez said.
Lip Service Alleged
Bill Mayer, Oxnard's budget and management director, disputed the county's figures and said the county is merely paying lip service to a formal probation program. He said one probation officer is responsible for tracking as many as 1,491 first-time offenders but that instead of hiring more officers, the county funnels a portion of the drunk-driving fines to other county uses.
"We know the probation program doesn't cost the amount of money that's being diverted from the cities," he said. Based on the cost of hiring one probation officer at an annual salary of about $45,000, city officials estimate that the county spends no more than about $600,000 on the program. And they want the balance of the drunk-driving fines returned to them for local enforcement.
7,500 Convicted Annually
About 7,500 people are convicted of drunk driving each year in Ventura County and pay a $1,200 fine, but the county receives only about $425 of that fee, according to county officials. About $625 goes to the state for criminal-justice programs, and the balance is divided among the state's victim-restitution fund and educational programs, such as one on alcohol abuse.
To gear up for their battle, the cities plan to contribute a total of $25,000, appoint a steering committee, and hire an attorney.
Elizabeth Silver, a San Leandro attorney who successfully represented the 18 cities of Contra Costa County in a similar lawsuit over disbursement of court fees, has been mentioned as a likely candidate, Cauldwell said.