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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Grand Jury Calls Local Public Safety Tax Law Illegal

Finances: Report backs Hufford's stance, urging supervisors to rescind ordinance that guarantees $40 million annually to D.A. and sheriff's, fire and probation departments.

May 26, 2000|GINA PICCALO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Ventura County Grand Jury on Thursday urged the county Board of Supervisors to rescind a local ordinance that guarantees about $40 million in annual sales taxes to four public safety departments, saying the policy illegally ties the board's hands on budget-making decisions.

The report bolsters county administrator Harry Hufford's position that the 6-year-old ordinance is too restrictive and should be disregarded as the county seeks to close an anticipated $12-million budget deficit.

The nine-page report supports a 1996 grand jury finding, saying the 1994 ordinance violates the California State Budget Act, which requires the board annually to consider the needs of each department before approving a budget.

It recommends that the board review annually how best to use Proposition 172 sales tax funds instead of guaranteeing the money exclusively for law enforcement.

Ventura County is the only county in California to impose such restrictions on the funds, which are generated by a half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1993.

Hufford called the report "a strong and powerful message to the community" that Proposition 172 and the county ordinance bind the board's budgetary authority. He said the same is true of a Community Memorial Hospital sponsored-initiative that seeks to divert control of $260 million in tobacco settlement funds from county coffers to private hospitals.

"It really restates our position that you cannot and should not take the budgetary authority away from the board by the initiative process," he said.

The grand jury's findings come a week after Hufford recommended significant cuts to all county agencies, including the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office.

Hufford called off negotiations with Sheriff Bob Brooks after Brooks refused to cut $6.5 million from his department's spending plan. Brooks vowed to take his opposition to the board during June budget hearings.

On Thursday, Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury and Sheriff's Chief Deputy Dante Honorico vowed to fight any attempt by supervisors to divert Proposition 172 money away from public safety.

Bradbury said he will issue "a careful, legal analysis" of the ordinance to the grand jury within 45 days.

"I continue to believe in the constitutionality and appropriateness" of the ordinance, Bradbury said.

If the board rescinds the ordinance, Bradbury said he would seek a judicial review to ensure the funds are used responsibly.

"The real issue is that the public enacted Proposition 172 so that the money would go to public safety even if [others] believe the money would be better spent elsewhere," Bradbury said.

In 1995, Bradbury launched a petition drive that gathered 55,000 signatures to place an initiative on the ballot that would exclusively set aside the half-cent sales tax money for his office and the sheriff's, fire and probation departments. The board adopted the measure as an ordinance before it appeared on the ballot.

Although he doesn't oppose a review of the ordinance to consider sharing the money with other departments in the future, Bradbury stressed that law enforcement agencies need the Proposition 172 revenue to staff a planned $63-million juvenile justice complex to be built within three years.

The grand jury report also recommends the sheriff "budget more accurately" to reduce the amount it receives from the county's general fund.

A Times analysis found that after Proposition 172's approval, Ventura County law enforcement budgets have swollen 70%.

That increase compares with a 29% rise in the county budget overall and a 32% increase in the general fund, which provides a variety of basic public services.

Honorico, who oversees the Sheriff's Department budget, called some of the grand jury's findings "misleading."

He said the findings do not take into account that money from Proposition 172 reduces the amount the Sheriff's Department would otherwise need from the general fund each year.

"That's extra money left over," he said. "Where's that money going? To other county priorities that are not public-safety oriented."

Supervisor John Flynn said the constitutionality of the ordinance could be challenged. But he said he will wait for Hufford's recommendation before issuing an opinion on the report.

"I can't be second-guessing him at this point," Flynn said.

But Supervisor Frank Schillo said he already disagrees with Hufford's perspective on the grand jury's findings.

Schillo, a staunch backer of the county's law enforcement agencies, said he won't support attempts to amend or rescind the ordinance.

Instead, he said $25 million to $30 million could be saved in fiscal year 2000-01 if more than 500 vacant positions countywide were eliminated.

"That's real money that's there in the budget," he said. "That's a situation that does not affect the current service level."

Schillo and Supervisor Judy Mikels campaigned heavily in 1994 to reserve Proposition 172 for public safety, Schillo said.

Before the ordinance, Schillo said, some of the money was being given to the Health Care Agency and that supervisors "had no intention of keeping it available for public safety."

"The people voted on this, and they voted on it to be used on public safety," Schillo said. "The ordinance we passed is based on that vote."

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Times staff writer Tina Dirmann contributed to this story.

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