"Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guarantees all others."
This observation of a great statesman offers wise counsel for times of crisis and challenge. For when courage is in short supply, tough decisions are left for another day, promises are broken and doing what is right gives way to doing what is expedient.
Today, Ventura County government faces a difficult challenge. The courage of its leaders, institutions and citizens is being tested by a projected $15-million budget shortfall. Not surprisingly, potential strategies for addressing this problem are the subject of considerable debate and disagreement. Times like these are dangerous because in the rush to find quick fixes, history is forgotten and the will of the electorate is often trampled. Indeed, some have now urged county leadership to reorder its previously pledged priorities and rescind an earlier promise to make public safety government's first responsibility. We must not allow this stampede mind-set to take hold during this difficult time.
Here in Ventura County, we enjoy one of the lowest metropolitan crime rates in the nation. We can also boast having America's two safest large cities, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks. This enviable status is not the product of mere happenstance, economic prosperity or national trends. Instead, it is the result of our community's abiding commitment to public safety and the important governmental policies and decisions that have consistently honored this commitment.
In the early 1990s, crime in California had reached record levels. An economic recession had produced the largest budget deficit in the state's history, causing state officials to shift $2.3 billion in annual property tax revenues from local government to the state. This threatened local government's ability to stem the tide of violent crime. To address this problem, Proposition 172 was placed on the November 1993 ballot. This state initiative provided a half cent sales tax as a dedicated source of funding for local law enforcement.
In urging voters to pass Proposition 172, county officials throughout California held countless news conferences at which they solemnly promised to use these funds solely for public safety. Unfortunately, once voters approved this measure, those officials conveniently forgot their promise. Only Ventura County's leaders remained true to their word. Current crime figures show that they made the right decision. Of the 25 metropolitan counties in California, four have double the crime rate of Ventura, 13 have a 50% higher crime rate, four others are at least 25% higher and the remaining three are more than 10% higher.
To avoid the failures of other jurisdictions, Ventura County police and prosecutors pursued a local initiative guaranteeing Proposition 172 revenues for public safety. After more than 50,000 signatures were gathered, the Board of Supervisors adopted the initiative as an ordinance, eliminating the need for a special election.
By doing so, the board honored its promise to this community. Its courage produced positive results, with the crime rate declining by more than 30% during the last five years. The safety of Ventura County unquestionably attracts families and businesses, expanding our tax base and improving government's ability to deliver services. In my view, these facts also offer compelling evidence of why, even in tough times, government must stay the course when it comes to fighting crime.
In this year's budget discussions, it is important to keep in mind that our public safety ordinance is not the villain that produced our current financial woes. In truth, the mental health department's past improper billing practices rightfully deserve the lion's share of blame.
There is an old saying that "public opinion may not always be shared by all of our leaders, but it is always heeded by the best of our leaders." Public opinion that the safety of our communities is the top priority was made abundantly clear through the grass-roots efforts that led to the passage of our local public safety ordinance in 1995.
I am committed to working with the Board and interim Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford to ensure that the continued safety and well-being of Ventura County's residents remains our No. 1 priority. Although our county leadership faces a tough challenge, I am confident that the Board and Hufford will have the courage to balance our budget in a way that is consistent with their obligation and long-standing commitment to our citizens under our public safety ordinance.