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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

2 Supervisors to Target Public Safety Funding

Budget: Bennett and Flynn concur with county administrator that yearly increases for the four departments are too big. Sheriff disagrees.

November 15, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Supervisor-elect Steve Bennett takes his seat in January, he will become the second board member pledging to review the hefty annual increases handed to the county's sheriff, district attorney and other public safety departments.

Supervisor John Flynn says he is ready to take on the contentious issue, adding he and Bennett could be the muscle needed to adjust the annual 7% to 10% cost-of-living increases law enforcement agencies currently enjoy.

Flynn may argue for a return to the consumer price index formula, which would keep increases to about 2% per year.

"I think it does need to be reviewed, and as soon as [Bennett] comes on board," Flynn said. "I know it's going to make some people angry, but if we don't do something, we are going to be in deep, deep financial trouble down the road."

Added Bennett, "I already told the sheriff I'm going to look at it. I'm very committed to putting the county on good long-term financial footing. So I'm willing to look at the inflationary increases used and examine their impact."

The special financing deal secured by the county's public safety departments--including the Sheriff's Department, district attorney's office, probation agency and public defender--has been identified as a significant flaw in the county's budget by two top county government administrators.

When former Chief Administrative Officer David Baker left his post last November after only four days on the job, he warned that the county was heading for financial disaster. He cited as a major factor the large cash entitlements set aside for public safety agencies in the aftermath of 1993's Proposition 172, a statewide half-cent sales tax to supplement public safety budgets.

Baker warned that funneling all Proposition 172 sales tax money to law enforcement agencies and guaranteeing hefty inflationary increases on top of that "presents a structural financial imbalance which is dramatic and ongoing." A county ordinance earmarks about $40 million a year from Proposition 172 tax money for public safety budgets.

Current Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford has echoed Baker's concerns, adding that the guaranteed inflationary increases come at the expense of other county programs. In a recent report, Hufford said the county has overpaid the four agencies $44 million during the past five years because of the inflated cost-of-living adjustments.

In the seven years since California voters approved Proposition 172, county law enforcement budgets have swollen about 70%. That increase compares with an estimated 29% increase for the county budget overall.

Despite increasing criticism of the large payouts, no effort has been made to stem the annual inflationary increases to the sheriff's budget, largely because most board members don't support such a move.

Sheriff Bob Brooks defended the inflationary increases as necessary for recruiting and keeping a highly trained force.

"The board needs to realize that we'll very quickly remove ourselves as a competitor for the best deputies," Brooks said. "We'll have a very difficult time filling our ranks. I don't think the public wants the cheapest deputies we can find."

For years department salaries were far below the average when compared with agencies of similar size, Brooks said. The large increases in recent years, he said, were meant to help make deputies' salaries more competitive. The current top salary for a patrol deputy is $54,342.

"They only receive average pay today," Brooks said. "If we held them to the consumer price index, they quite frankly couldn't afford to live here."

The Sheriff's Department uses its own formula to secure annual inflationary raises from the Board of Supervisors, which can be as high as 10%. That formula is based in part on the salary union officials negotiate for deputies.

Hufford has said it's too expensive to allow the department to use negotiated salary increases as a basis for inflationary costs. If increases were held to the consumer price index, the Sheriff's Department would see a budget increase of about 2% annually, which would then be used for raises and other department expenditures.

If Flynn and Bennett decide to recommend a new formula for calculating inflationary increases for law enforcement budgets, they will need at least one other board member to secure a majority. Supervisors Kathy Long, Frank Schillo and Judy Mikels have not publicly taken stands on the issue.

Flynn said he is confident it's possible to garner a unanimous vote for changes once the new board is presented with all the facts.

"You can't deny the facts," Flynn said. "We have to act together as a board to do what's best for the county. As it stands now, the sheriff in effect has become so powerful with his budget, he actually has more authority than the chief administrative officer does in balancing the county budget."

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