As supervisors scramble to address Ventura County's fiscal crisis, Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury agreed Monday to turn over millions of dollars a year in new public safety taxes to run a proposed $64-million Juvenile Hall.
With county supervisors set to meet today in what promises to be a fractious public hearing on the budget problems, Brooks said he and Bradbury are prepared to do their part by setting aside all new taxes above the $40 million they currently receive from a half-cent sales tax for public safety.
Although the pledge does not solve the county's projected $5-million budget shortfall this fiscal year, it answers the pressing question of where the county will find money to run the new juvenile facility, expected to open in 2003.
Brooks made it clear, however, that the county's law enforcement establishment will not share any more of the public safety funds allocated under Proposition 172. Nor will they voluntarily give up automatic budget increases in future years.
Doing so, he said, would break the promise to voters who passed Proposition 172, a statewide initiative that sets aside money for public safety. Ventura County went further, as the Board of Supervisors designated the money, including cost-of-living increases for supplies and equipment, exclusively for the sheriff, district attorney, public defender and probation chief.
"It's a real sacrifice to defer that revenue for the Juvenile Hall," Brooks said. "We are trying to look at the overall good of the county, and I don't think there is anything more important than that facility coming on line."
At least one supervisor was not impressed by Brooks' and Bradbury's generosity. Supervisor Susan Lacey said the offer was meant to "divert attention" from the need to revisit the Proposition 172 issue.
"The average person probably doesn't realize there are no checks and balances in some of those agencies," Lacey said. "The amount they get grows every year, and there is more general fund money going to those departments every year. That doesn't make sense."
Bradbury, however, said Lacey was hardly a credible critic, since she was the architect of the move that brought about the county's financial crisis. He said the budget problems, while overblown, would not exist at all if it were not for last year's failed merger of mental health and social service departments, led by Lacey.
"This thing was Lacey's godchild," Bradbury said. "She may have gotten some help from others, but that's basically where it came from. . . . They thought they had stolen a march on everybody, and instead they caused a great deal of harm. The county will suffer from it for the next five years."
At the same time, the county's structural and financial problems prompted Camarillo City Councilman Mike Morgan to reconsider his decision not to run against Supervisor Kathy Long, who voted for the merger.
Morgan said former county administrator David L. Baker's departing assessment that the county is "near financial chaos" and facing "overwhelming problems" made him think again. After huddling with supporters, he said he is now better positioned to knock off Long for the seat representing Camarillo, Ojai, Santa Paula, Fillmore and Piru.
"It's looking very, very good," said Morgan, a retired federal probation officer and development consultant. "We've got a lot of encouragement going on, so it sounds very good." He said he would announce his decision today.
Long did not return a call seeking comment.
The willingness of the sheriff and district attorney to earmark funding for Juvenile Hall operations will be just one issue in what is likely to be a free-for-all discussion among the supervisors about how to respond to financial and administrative weaknesses identified by Baker. The 50-year-old county administrator resigned after four days on the job, saying there are so many obstacles to efficient governance in Ventura County that he would never be effective as chief administrative officer.
Interim Chief Administrative Officer Bert Bigler has outlined options the supervisors can follow in deciding how to close the spiraling deficit and add cash to the county's tight treasury. As is Auditor Tom Mahon, Bigler is recommending that the board eliminate unnecessary vacant positions and begin prioritizing programs cuts.
The county should also review reserve funds, require that no new programs be approved that are not totally funded within a department's budget and set cost targets for each department, Bigler said.
Additionally, he is recommending that the board direct Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand to explain why he is asking for a $4.8-million budget increase and to find ways to offset the hikes within his own budget. Other departments will be asked to do the same, Bigler said.
Any cuts made this year will slow budget growth over the long term, Bigler said. Supervisors should also consider restricting hiring and purchasing, and sell or lease parks and other county property that is not being used, he said.
The sheriff and district attorney's offer to set aside new taxes for Juvenile Hall operations is a good one, Bigler said.
"It's a terrific idea," he said. "It's one of many things we can do to make sure we are fiscally sound in years to come."
Times staff writer Daryl Kelley contributed to this story.