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Plan Targets Use of Public Safety Funds : Government: Group hopes to gather enough signatures for a measure to force county to put all Proposition 172 revenues into expanded programs.

October 05, 1994|PHYLLIS W. JORDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One year after voters approved a measure providing millions of dollars for public safety, Ventura County law enforcement advocates will be back at the polls in November pushing a proposal that binds how leaders spend the money.

In an Election Day blitz, volunteers hope to gain the more than 18,700 signatures they need for an initiative forcing the County Board of Supervisors to put all of its Proposition 172 tax revenues into expanded public safety programs.

"I don't think we're going to have any trouble doing this," said Otto Stoll, who heads Citizens for a Safe Ventura County. "I think the guy on the street will go for this, because it's another way of telling politicians that you've got to do what the voters tell you."

Stoll's group, working with prosecutors, sheriff's deputies and firefighters, plans to unveil its initiative at a press conference next week and submit it to election officials later that day.

If the group receives the needed signatures at polling places on Election Day, the supervisors will be forced to add the measure to the next countywide ballot.

With the next election more than a year off, Stoll said supporters would seek a special election or urge the supervisors simply to adopt the initiative as law.

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In 1993, county voters overwhelmingly approved the statewide Proposition 172, which provides a half-cent sales tax for public safety. Supervisors initially pledged to spend all the money to improve criminal justice programs, not simply maintain current services.

But in the face of severe budget cuts, the board took some of the money out of the Sheriff's Department and district attorney budgets and used it, instead, for related programs. The coroner's office, for instance, received nearly $1 million.

Supervisors defended their decision, saying the sheriff first suggested merging the coroner's office into his department.

"I don't know if we're talking about control or we're talking about money," Supervisor Maggie Kildee said. "My understanding is we put all of the money into public safety."

Supervisors angered some residents earlier with a decision to exclude the Fire Department from any of the special revenue.

The new initiative would specify what county programs would be eligible for the Proposition 172 money, which amounted to $28 million in this budget year, Stoll said. The measure would include firefighters under the public safety umbrella.

The measure would also set a formula for how much county money should go into criminal justice budgets as a base. After that, the county could spend the Proposition 172 money for enhancing services.

County officials argue that any effort to tie their hands would cripple their ability to balance the budget. The Proposition 172 money was initially conceived as a replacement for property tax revenue the state took away from the counties a year ago.

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Nothing in the original initiative prevents the county from using the funding to replace money lost to the state. In fact, many communities have simply used the sales tax to replace, rather than augment, county spending for law enforcement, state officials say.

"I think we've kept the faith with 172," Supervisor Susan Lacey said. "We don't know what kinds of funds are going to be spent or how state spending will change."

But law enforcement boosters point to promises that supervisors made before and after Proposition 172 was approved. The board pledged to use all the money for enhancements, and in March followed through with a $24-million commitment to expanding criminal justice agencies.

But by the time budget deliberations began in July, supervisors faced unexpected cuts from the state.

Eventually, board members took about $1.2 million from the $24-million commitment for other programs. Also, they never designated a use for an extra $4 million in Proposition 172 revenue that came in at the end of the July.

That money went, instead, to maintain current services in the Sheriff's Department, county officials said.

"A lot of people have called us and said what the Board of Supervisors did was wrong," said Ken Maffei, who heads the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Assn. "The public was really angry that the board violated their trust."

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