A Sacramento judge's ruling that a half-cent sales tax is unconstitutional could force Ventura County officials to reduce the size of a planned new jail, Sheriff's Department officials said this week.
Ventura County supervisors said Tuesday that they are not relying exclusively on revenues generated by the half-cent sales tax to build the $41-million jail.
"It's not a setback," Supervisor Maggie Erickson said.
But law enforcement officials disagreed with that assessment.
The ruling Monday by Sacramento Superior Court Judge James T. Ford strikes down state legislation establishing an agency to pay off construction bonds used to build jails.
The legislation introduced by state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) affected six counties: Humboldt, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura. Counties had proposed creating a jail facilities commission to collect and spend tax revenues. The half-cent sales tax would have generated up to $25 million in revenues for Ventura County.
To impose the half-cent tax in Ventura County, the Board of Supervisors would have had to place the measure before the voters. Passage would have required a simple majority.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., in a lawsuit filed last October, charged that the creation of a special agency to impose the half-cent tax violates Proposition 13's requirement of two-thirds' voter approval of tax increases.
"We were delighted with the ruling. We think it was just a sham device to circumvent Proposition 13," said Joel Fox, president of the taxpayers' association based in Los Angeles. "The courts saw that clearly."
The association argued that local agencies already have the authority to impose taxes on voters.
"What I believe is going on is they're trying to be creative to get around the two-thirds vote," Fox said. "They're spending their time finding loopholes instead of convincing the people they need these facilities."
Supervisors said that getting voter support for a tax increase is almost impossible. Taxpayers have opposed measures to provide new jails to house increasing numbers of prisoners, they said.
"People want law and order, but they don't think about the cost of jails and the cost of operating jails," Supervisor Madge Schaefer said.
The judge's decision has not killed hope in the half-cent tax measure. Officials from Ventura and other counties named in the legislation are reviewing the judge's decision and considering what appeals can be filed, Ventura Asst. County Counsel Daniel Murphy said.
"We'll probably be in contact with the counties as to how we're going to proceed in the future," he said.
Overcrowding at county jails has forced the Ventura County Sheriff's Department to fill cells at three times their capacity. Population at the county jail built for 400 inmates is running at more than 1,100, said Cmdr. Don Lanquist, in charge of jail planning for the Sheriff's Department.
With the elimination of the tax as a potential source of revenues, officials say, they may have to scale down the size of the jail project.
"We'll be able to build, we just won't be able to build as much as the needs assessment indicates," Ventura County Assistant Sheriff Richard Bryce said. "We'll build a 480-bed jail instead of a 768-bed jail that we need."
Ventura County supervisors have suggested other programs to reduce jail overcrowding, including expanding the work furlough program, introducing electronic surveillance devices to allow prisoners to stay at home and holding prisoners in tents.
Supervisor John Flynn said the judge's ruling was disappointing.
"The money for construction of a new jail is there, but we have to have money to operate the jails, and if you can't add money from revenues like sales taxes for example, there's no other place to get it except . . . to take it from other operations," Flynn said.
Flynn said he will bring up his suggestion to add onto existing facilities as a way to cut jail costs.