SANTA ANA — Reversing an action it took in January, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to charge all area cities and school districts for the prisoners they have booked into county jails during the past 12 months.
The jail booking fee of $154 per prisoner was imposed retroactively by the board. It would bring in an additional $6.2 million to the county treasury--money that cities say they can ill afford during these tight budget times.
But that's only half the story. Cities, it turns out, may not actually have to pay those bills. The bills will come due only if two things happen: the Legislature revokes the right of counties to charge the controversial booking fee, and also votes to reimburse only those counties that have billed for it in the current fiscal year.
Orange County had deferred billing the cities. Tuesday's action gets some bills in the mail quickly to allow the county to be reimbursed by the state.
"This, along with other actions that we've had to take, is because we're trying to stay one step ahead of what may or may not happen in Sacramento," said Board Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez. "This is almost unprecedented, but unprecedented things are being done to us."
The jail booking fee debate and the uncertainty surrounding it highlight a budget year that has proved enormously frustrating for county officials. As long as the state budget has remained unfinished, county budget officials have no way of knowing what shape they will be in next year.
"None of us like to take this action," said Supervisor Don R. Roth. "But it's absolutely necessary."
The problem--and the uncertainty--grows out of a mixture of financial and political developments in Sacramento that have left local officials scratching their heads. Things are so confused that two representatives of the city of Fullerton at Tuesday's board meeting--its finance chief and its chief of police--spoke on opposite sides of the issue before the supervisors.
In a nutshell, the problem is that the state is considering abolishing a fee that many counties have already counted on in the coming budgets.
When the state government passed its budget last year, it gave counties permission to charge the booking fee. That was to make up for cutbacks in state funding.
Most counties imposed the fee and started charging it right away. Orange County supervisors, however, elected not to impose the fee because local cities argued that it would wreak havoc on their budgets, force layoffs and lead to cutbacks in police services.
So the supervisors relented. But now the Legislature, also under pressure from the cities, is considering a plan to abolish the fee.
If it does, it could place a huge burden on counties that would lose millions of dollars a year. Some state legislators promise they'll make up the difference by reimbursing counties for their losses.
In doing so, the state would take the bills that counties sent out in the current fiscal year and match them with other state funds next year.
Trouble is, under that scenario, Orange County would get nothing unless it issues some bills this fiscal year, which ends Sunday. But the real impact of Tuesday's vote still is unclear.
"The cities will be billed," said county budget director Ronald S. Rubino. "After that, I don't know. I really don't. We just need to wait and see what happens."
In other action, the supervisors gave final approval to a smoking ban in county buildings. That vote was expected and merely a formality, because the supervisors approved the ban last week.
The ban will affect all county buildings, including the jail and John Wayne Airport. The new regulations go into effect Monday, although jail inmates will get a year's reprieve. At the airport and in other restaurants in county-owned or leased buildings, smoking sections will be trimmed from 80% of all available seats to 20%.