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VanderKolk Lauds Use of Prop. 172 Revenues : Budget: Supervisor says Ventura County has done more than others to expand public safety. She opposes initiative backed by sheriff and D.A.

July 30, 1994|PHYLLIS W. JORDAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite the claims of angry law enforcement officials, Ventura County "stands head and shoulders" above other California counties in using Proposition 172 revenue to expand public safety, Supervisor Maria VanderKolk asserted Friday.

"What I find so astonishing about the recent controversy over how the Ventura County Board of Supervisors has handled its share of the Prop. 172 revenue is that we are one of a handful of counties that have actually significantly augmented and enhanced public safety services," wrote VanderKolk on Friday in a letter to The Times.

She urged voters to move slowly before tying the Board of Supervisors' hands with a proposed ballot initiative, which would limit spending of the special half-cent sales tax approved by voters last November.

The initiative, suggested Thursday by the sheriff and district attorney, would require that all the new revenue go toward expanding--rather than maintaining--criminal justice and fire services.

After researching the topic for her master's thesis, VanderKolk agreed that many counties simply substituted the Proposition 172 revenue for the county money once devoted to law enforcement.

But Ventura County pledged $24 million to restore past cuts and hire new employees in law enforcement agencies, she said. When the Board of Supervisors voted to take back $1.2 million of that money earlier this week, it drew criticism and the initiative threat.

Law enforcement officials say it doesn't matter what other counties have done with the Proposition 172 money. What is important, said Sheriff Larry Carpenter, is that the supervisors made a commitment, on at least three occasions, to using all the new revenue to expand public safety.

"It's a matter of public trust," Carpenter said. "I believe that we're going to pursue an initiative, and I believe the voters will find that an acceptable solution."

VanderKolk acknowledged that the supervisors boxed themselves by making those commitments. "But we did it all in the name of public safety," she said in an interview. "Even after (the cuts) we did last week, they still have millions more than they got last year."

The sheriff's budget, she calculated, gets $5.2 million more than it did in the last fiscal year. The district attorney's office has about $2 million more, as does the Corrections Services Agency. And the public defender gets a $746,100 increase.

In addition, the supervisors provided $8 million toward operating the new county jail, which opens in the spring.

"Now if these actions aren't enhancements to public safety, I don't know what is," she wrote.

By contrast, Los Angeles County merely added the sales tax revenue into the budgets of the sheriff and district attorney and then subtracted the same amount of money coming from property taxes, VanderKolk said, quoting a letter from the L.A. County board.

She pointed out that all counties lost property tax revenue to the state, and many saw Proposition 172 as a way to make up some of that money.

VanderKolk, who is not seeking reelection this year, said she is working on a master's degree in public administration and chose Proposition 172 as her thesis topic. In the process, she concluded that Ventura County exceeded most other counties' efforts toward boosting public safety.

Law enforcement officials were initially satisfied with the supervisors' approach. But they grew angry when the board at the last minute transferred $1.2 million from the public safety budgets to pay for related functions, namely the medical examiner's office and legal services for children.

"The issue isn't really a financial issue this year," Carpenter said. "The issue is really the broadened definition of public safety."

VanderKolk argued that the sheriff, himself, had broadened the definition when he agreed to assume control of the medical examiner's office. Now he's paying for the office, without controlling it, she said. "The only difference is one builds his empire and the other one doesn't."

Carpenter argued that he planned to cross-train deputies to do the coroner's work, saving money for the county. "It's cheaper to send one person to a crime scene, than two," he said. "That's simple math."

Ultimately, VanderKolk said, the county had competing priorities to fund, such as libraries, health care and mental health.

"It would have been far, far easier to submit to the demands of the sheriff and the D.A. as regards Prop. 172," VanderKolk wrote. "I have been their supporter for four years and in making the decisions I felt compelled to do last week, I was fully cognizant of the fact that good relationships would be soured."

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