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Cities Urge Repeal of Law Allowing Fees by Counties : Government: Charges for jail bookings and tax collections cause financial worries for municipalities.

December 02, 1990|MICHELE FUETSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several Southeast cities are calling for the Legislature to repeal a new state law that would allow counties to charge the cities a fee for collecting their taxes and for booking their prisoners into the county jail.

Los Angeles County Supervisors have not yet determined the amount of the fees, but city officials said they fear any charges would create a significant financial drain.

County department heads, at the request of worried city officials, are revealing some of the possible fees.

The jail fee that will probably be recommended by Sheriff Sherman Block is $114 per prisoner, said the Sheriff Department's chief financial officer, Fred M. Ramirez. However, Ramirez cautioned, it is still unclear whether the supervisors will make every city pay the fee and whether it will apply to every prisoner or only to those not fingerprinted at local police stations.

As for tax collection, city officials say they are being told by county tax analysts that the fee will probably be equal to 10% of a city's tax revenues.

Sheri Erlewine, spokeswoman for the League of California Cities, which also is calling for repeal of the law, said the statute leaves county supervisors free to set whatever fee schedule they want. The law states only that counties can charge for jail "booking and processing fees" but that can mean the cost of anything from fingerprinting to AIDS tests, Erlewine said.

Some counties, she said, do not plan to charge anything for prisoners, but others are charging anywhere from $44 per prisoner to $150. Orange County has told its cities that it will charge them $183 for every prisoner they bring to the County Jail.

Jail fees could weigh so heavily on some cities, that at least one, Compton, is already putting suspects in misdemeanor cases such as petty theft and drunk driving back on the street instead of in the Los Angeles County Jail.

"As soon as we heard about this we started," Compton Police Chief Terry Ebert said.

Compton's budget problems are so severe that it laid off about 100 city workers last year and next year faces a deficit of $9 million, which is equal to 60% of the total Police Department budget.

The city, which has one of the highest crime rates in the state, takes about 2,500 suspects each year to the County Jail. At $114 per suspect, that would be nearly $300,000 a year in jail fees.

Long Beach estimates that it will have to come up with $1.5-million to pay the county for collecting its property and redevelopment taxes, said Robert Torrez, the city's budget director.

The city is already so strapped for money, Torrez said, that early this year it had to increase its utility tax to cover the cost of increased police protection.

What worries city officials the most, however, is that they adopted their budgets in June and the new law is retroactive to July 1 of this year. When the law takes effect Jan. 1, 1991, the cities are going to get bills from the county right away.

"We don't have any money. We don't have any reserves," Torrez said. "We're going to have to shift resources and cut capital projects."

Even affluent cities such as Cerritos, which has $20 million in reserves, are up in arms over the new state law. The Cerritos City Council was among the first in the area to adopt a resolution calling for its repeal.

The Paramount City Council recently adopted a resolution for repeal. Compton did the same in October, and the Lynwood council will take up the issue at a meeting later this month. Bell Gardens is expected to consider a resolution asking for the repeal the law at its Dec. 17 council meeting.

John Saunders, chief fiscal officer in Cerritos, said county officials have informed him that he can expect to pay a fee as high as $400,000 a year for tax collection.

"I can collect them a lot cheaper than that, but they won't let me," Saunders said. By state law, only county governments are tax collectors.

John Bramble, city manager of Bell, said he expects his city's tax collection fee to be about $100,000 annually.

Officials in cities that contract with the Sheriff's Department for law-enforcement services say they are being told by Sheriff's Department administrators that they will not have to pay the jail fees.

That has raised the ire of officials in cities that have their own police departments. "That's not fair," said Montebello Police Chief Steven Simonian. "There's going to be law suits over that."

Among the contract cities in the Southeast area are Lynwood, Paramount, Hawaiian Gardens, Cudahy, Bellflower and Lakewood.

Orange County has already told its cities to expect to pay as much as $183 for each prisoner they bring to the County Jail, regardless of whether the prisoner has been fingerprinted and photographed at a local police station first.

Compton appears to be the only city, so far, that is pursuing a policy to cut down on the number of suspects sent to the County Jail.

Depending on what fee structure the county adopts, other cities may follow suit.

"That's what we will be doing if this thing (is implemented)," Montebello's Chief Simonian said. "There is no way you can take a municipality that lives within its budget and gets a $100,000 bill and not have an impact," he said.

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