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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Smoke Funds Urged for Health Care

County: Agency director says U.S. tobacco settlement should go toward public services and disease prevention. Others back splitting money.

July 06, 1999|PAMELA J. JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rather than split the money with other departments, Ventura County should use the entire $12 million it expects to receive from the national tobacco settlement over the next two years on Health Care Agency projects, the agency's director recently told supervisors.

Pierre Durand's proposal sharply differs from Chief Administrative Officer Lin Koester's recommendation to split the money evenly between the Ventura County Medical Center and the general fund, which is used to support various programs and services.

Koester said the ongoing tobacco funding could be used to help balance the county budget. The county is now using $8 million in one-time grants and rebates to balance its budget.

Under Durand's plan, the county would spend the money on nine projects and programs, such as constructing new public health buildings, sponsoring disease-prevention programs and providing services to the growing uninsured population.

"I strongly urge you to have the tobacco settlement go toward health services," Durand told supervisors during a recent budget study session. "The tobacco settlement is a great opportunity for this county to remain a leader in health care."

About $3 million in the funds are expected to be deposited into county coffers by the end of June 2000 and another $9 million in the 2000-2001 fiscal year, Chief Deputy Administrative Officer Bert Bigler said. After that, the county is scheduled to receive about $9 million per year until 2025.

The national tobacco industry settlement--which ended more than 40 pending lawsuits filed by states, counties and cities against tobacco companies--will shower $1 billion annually on California through 2025.

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Although the board may use the funds any way it chooses, at least two supervisors--Judy Mikels and John Flynn--are already pushing to spend the money on anti-smoking programs and on caring for people with tobacco-related illnesses.

Durand, one of several department managers expected to fight over the bounty, was the first to make a public pitch. But he already appears to be running into trouble.

His proposal met with opposition from Chairwoman Susan Lacey, who questioned whether all tobacco funds should go to the Health Care Agency. She said she wants to give other department managers a chance to make their case for a portion of the money before making a final decision.

"It sounds like all the money should go to health care, but that's not how I read it," Lacey said during a budget hearing Tuesday.

Durand was among the nearly three dozen department heads who requested money recently during the preparation of the county budget for next fiscal year.

"The board is going to have to have a full-blown philosophical discussion about this," Lacey told Durand.

Later, Mikels said she disagreed with Lacey.

"The only ethical way to use that money is to beef up the health-care system," Mikels said. "Dealing with smoking-related illnesses was the basis of the lawsuit. It would be unethical to take the money and start filling potholes."

Mikels also disagreed with Koester's suggestion that half the money go into the general fund.

"If we put it in the general fund it just gets lapped up," Mikels said. "The general fund is like the black hole. . . . It needs to go toward health-related services, and that's the way I've felt about it since the day the settlement happened."

Flynn agreed.

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"I'm inclined to take [Durand's] recommendations," he said. "The whole thrust of the tobacco money is health."

Although Long said at least a portion of the money should go toward health care, she said it was too early for supervisors to draft a spending plan.

For the sake of fairness, the board should listen to every request, she said.

"The bottom line is there are a lot of agencies out there that have developed a wish list," Long said.

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