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Ventura County Perspective

At No Cost to Voters, Settlement Would Let the County Catch Up

We have to decide where the tobacco money will go. The prospect of throwing it away while spending taxpayer dollars is dumbfounding.

August 13, 2000|BRUCE ROLAND | Bruce Roland lives in Ojai

Every now and then a story like the battle over Ventura County's share of what is widely known as the "tobacco-settlement" money puts a full nelson on the news. People have a hard time sifting through the blather and lose sight of the issue. Some reporters try to keep readers on track but once the special-interest groups begin propagandizing their way to the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, the skies cloud right back over.

This whole affair started out innocently enough. The state's attorney general ventured into a multi-state lawsuit against the tobacco companies in an attempt to recover taxpayer money used to pay for treating tobacco-related illnesses. Time brought about a settlement, and California chose to disburse its share of the money among its counties for them to use in any way they see fit.

Ventura County's share amounts to about $10 million per year over the next 25 years. Upon learning of this largess, the county thought it might catch up some services neglected while it was caring for smokers. This is where the fun and games began.

Looking to cure some financial ills of its own, Ventura's Community Memorial Hospital began a campaign to convince county residents that the money should be spent exclusively on health care and that the private CMH is better suited to do this than the Board of Supervisors. The hospital convinced enough people to sign its petition to secure a spot on the November's ballot.

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Threatened with the loss of this windfall, the county called the initiative illegal, refused to place it on the ballot and promised that it will spend all future settlement money on health care. But a judge has ruled that, although it is likely the initiative will be thrown out if it passes, the county has to put it on the ballot anyway.

Which is where we are now: We have to decide where this money is going to wind up. A veritable barrage of noninformation has no doubt left many of us wondering whether we should let people we can't trust (but seem to keep voting for anyway) watch over it or turn it over to people we'll probably never hear from again once it's all over.

There are those who are already lined up behind one camp or the other. If they think the Board of Supervisors is a bunch of ingrates, that's their opinion. In America, you can feel that way and say so. The same can be said for those who think the people behind the initiative are merely opportunists.

But I'll share a little something with you. I am one of the stupid people who smokes, and don't you think for a moment that the settlement money is coming from any source other than me and the other stupid people around the world who partake in a practice that has turned them into social pariahs.

I would like nothing better than to see this money spent on programs to help me quit or treat me when my habit gets the better of me, but the county has expressed interest in using some of my money to get caught up, and the taxpayer in me tells me to leave well enough alone.

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Call me overly optimistic, but I believe my elected officials might suffer a conscience attack and toss me a few bones someday. I am dumbfounded by the thought that other taxpayers would just as soon throw this gift horse in the river and force the county to spend tax money instead. Talk about spitting in your face!

Rebounding from a protracted recession and trying to get ends to meet while the state hoarded property tax revenue, Ventura County has more than a little fiscal catching up to do. And voters throughout the county have a golden opportunity to let the county do so at no expense to themselves.

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