Beginning Jan. 1, Orange County cities no longer will have to pay a $176 fee every time their police officers book a prisoner into the County Jail.
The 6-year-old fee is being eliminated because the county has earned enough money to help operate county jails from the passage of Proposition 172, a 1993 measure that earmarks state sales taxes for local law enforcement uses, Sheriff Brad Gates told supervisors Tuesday.
Without the fee, cities will save at least $1.75 million, which is what they paid the county from July 1, 1996, to June 30, 1997. The amount dropped slightly from the previous year, as cities scrambled to find other ways of handling those arrested.
"This has been a sore spot for some time between the chiefs and myself," Gates told supervisors in recommending with Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier that the fee be dropped.
The booking fee was adopted by the Board of Supervisors amid sharp protest in 1991, after state budget cutters yanked millions of dollars from local governments, leaving county officials looking to replace the lost money. Supervisors seized on the booking fee, arguing that cities should pay for processing local prisoners in the county jail.
Several city officials, including then-Westminster Mayor Charles V. Smith, warned that cities would do what they could to avoid paying the fees, including building their own jail beds or waiting for prisoners to be remanded to jail only after their first court appearance.
Smith, now a county supervisor, voted unanimously with his colleagues Tuesday to end the fee.
"I think the cities will appreciate having this relief," agreed board Chairman William G. Steiner, a member of the Orange City Council when the fee was adopted. "It's not appropriate to have city residents who generate [state sales tax] money to be paying twice [both the sales tax and the booking fee] for the opportunity to book prisoners in county jails."
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel A. Pulido Jr. said the booking fees, in addition to overcrowding at the county jail, were one reason that city opened its own jail in January.
"That was a large fee you had to pay," he said. "That was a hardship for us.
"Any time a fee like that is dropped, it's good news. It's going to mean more money left for local law enforcement," he said.
Supervisor Jim Silva, a Huntington Beach council member when the county adopted the fee, said the fee's elimination was warranted because of its "unintended consequences."
Prisoners who are sent to the jail by the courts cannot be cited and released, as they can when police officers arrest and drop them off at the jail.
As fewer officers were booking inmates because of the fees, Gates had less flexibility over who he could release and said he wound up freeing prisoners early who had been charged with more serious crimes than newer arrivals.
To help ease chronic jail overcrowding, supervisors also Tuesday approved a $22-million contract with Pinner Construction Inc., the lowest bidder, to build new jail beds at the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange. They will be the first new beds built in the jail system in 10 years.
The county's main jail in Santa Ana is under a 1985 court order limiting how many inmates can be housed there, increasing the burden on branch jails such as Theo Lacy and the James A. Musick Branch Jail in Lake Forest.
Gates said the county hopes to break ground on the Theo Lacy expansion next month and have the new beds ready within 18 months. The money will come from a variety of sources--including sales taxes, a state grant and money earned from selling supplies to jail inmates--and won't require any borrowing.
Times staff writer Steve Carney contributed to this report
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The Price of Booking
The controversial county jail booking fee, which cost Orange County cities and other jurisdictions more than $1.7 million last fiscal year, will cease Dec. 31. Revenue from Proposition 172 has proved sufficient to pay for jail operations. Costs by jurisdiction for fiscal year 1996-97, the most recent complete period:
Amount City paid Anaheim $26,400 Brea 23,760 Buena Park 63,712 Costa Mesa 85,536 Cypress 31,856 Dana Point 82,016 Fountain Valley 16,544 Fullerton 21,472 Garden Grove 250,096 Huntington Beach 21,296 Irvine 115,456 Laguna Beach 23,232 Laguna Hills 61,072 Laguna Niguel 41,184 La Habra 15,136 Lake Forest 95,744 La Palma 5,803 Los Alamitos 15,488 Mission Viejo 102,256 Newport Beach 35,728 Orange N/A Placentia 31,856 San Clemente 105,072 San Juan Capistrano 63,712 Santa Ana 91,872 Seal Beach 4,400 Stanton 99,968 Tustin 146,432 Villa Park 1,232 Westminster 46,816 Yorba Linda N/A CSU Fullerton 2,816 UC Irvine 20,416 TOTAL $1,748,384
Source: Orange County sheriff-coroner; Researched by JEAN O. PASCO/ For The Times
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