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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | NEWS ANALYSIS

Sheriff, County CAO Heading for Showdown

Budget: Both officials believe they have the support of supervisors in a battle over law enforcement funding.

May 21, 2000|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Harry Hufford last week demanded $6.5 million in budget cuts from powerful Sheriff Bob Brooks, the interim county administrator knew he was in for a fight. But he was sure it was a fight he could win.

When Brooks refused to accept the cuts, he was also counting on a political victory when the county's new budget comes before the Board of Supervisors in June. But Brooks may have miscalculated.

Both Hufford, considered a sage veteran, who once ran Los Angeles County, and Brooks, known as a gentlemanly and articulate sheriff, insist they have the votes to prevail.

"I'm sure the board will vote for a balanced budget," Hufford said. "When the whole picture is out there, it's going to be hard to argue against it."

But Hufford proposes balancing the next county budget on the back of Brooks' popular department--exacting more than half of the $12 million in required cuts from a sheriff's budget fattened by a voter-approved sales tax for law enforcement.

"When it finally comes down to a vote of the board," Brooks said, "we will have the political support we need. Our level of public support has been overwhelming, and we think the elected officials will pay attention to that."

Interviews with four of five county supervisors indicate that Brooks may need to rethink his position.

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Supervisors John Flynn, Frank Schillo, Judy Mikels and Kathy Long all said that they hired Hufford in January to balance the county's budget and that the sheriff needs to do his part in the effort.

They urged Brooks to compromise further. Supervisor Susan Lacey, who could not be reached for comment, has previously urged cutting the sheriff's share of the budget.

Long, who is up for reelection this fall and is endorsed by Brooks, recruited Hufford out of semi-retirement in January to right Ventura County's financial ship. That puts her in a difficult position, she said.

"But I still have to look at the bottom line for all taxpayers, as does the sheriff," she said. "This isn't a fiefdom. We have to make sure that everybody is operating for the good of everybody else."

Schillo, a key supporter of the Sheriff's Department, said he backs Hufford and approves of everything he has done so far.

"He's our guy," Schillo said. "We hired him to do one job, balance the budget, and he's going to give us a balanced budget."

Hufford and Brooks were talking until last Wednesday, when Brooks rejected Hufford's demand for a $6.5-million cut, and declared publicly that he would take his case to the Board of Supervisors, if necessary.

Brooks said the cuts would force him to yank 49 deputies off the street, eliminate a lauded anti-gang unit and close the East County Jail.

Hufford, in turn, declared the talks at an impasse, and called off further negotiations.

"The negotiating and posturing with the [chief administrative officer] is really just a prelude," Brooks said Friday. "It's kind of like going through the motions. Now, this is when the political will of the board will be tested."

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No one is predicting a winner-take-all showdown at the June hearings.

"I don't want it to come down to a screaming battle in the boardroom. I don't believe it needs to be a showdown," Mikels said. "And I don't believe it's going to. But we have a lot of work to do."

Brooks said he is still willing to compromise.

"We're ready to negotiate. We're waiting," he said. "We hope there will be an opportunity to readdress the issue before we go before the board on June 13."

Brooks said he expects Hufford's demands to ease over time as extra revenue comes in and the projected $12-million deficit shrinks. He thinks Hufford will identify several million extra dollars in coming weeks.

Hufford suggested the same thing.

"I've been accused in the past of crying wolf; I'm not crying wolf," he said. "But I've got a lot of people looking for additional money right now. And if it balances the budget, then I'm a happy camper."

Almost lost amid the sound and fury of this debate are the dire circumstances that prompted it.

Hufford said he will propose a balanced $1-billion budget next month, with cuts in every department, because the county must demonstrate that it is fiscally sound. For years, it has spent more money than it has received and used one-time grants and special funds to make up the difference.

That prompted Chief Administrative Officer David Baker, who resigned in late November after four days on the job, to warn that the county was "near financial chaos."

A core problem, he said, is a 1995 county ordinance which guarantees that public safety agencies--the sheriff, district attorney, probation department and public defender--receive all the local sales tax from the 1993 ballot measure, Proposition 172. That is about $40 million a year, with the sheriff receiving about $30 million. On top of that, the ordinance grants public safety annual increases from the general fund to cover inflation.

Ventura County is the only county in California to impose such restrictions on Proposition 172 funds.

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