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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

County May Soon Draft Tobacco Funds Law

Legislation: Supervisors' ordinance, a response to Measure O, would require the $260 million in settlement money be spent on health care. It would also share money with local hospitals.

October 14, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In hopes of saving $260 million in tobacco settlement funds, county supervisors say they could begin as early as next week drafting an ordinance requiring that the money be spent on health care.

"I'm leaning toward an ordinance," said Supervisor Frank Schillo. "I feel very confident that we will do some kind of ordinance that will have flexible permanence and make a commitment to health care."

The discussion comes in response to Measure O, as well as months of public criticism that the board has made no formal pledge to devote the tobacco money--amounting to $10 million a year for 25 years--to health care.

Measure O, sponsored by the private Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, would take the $260 million and give it to at least three private hospitals.

Supervisors Schillo and Judy Mikels said they have been waiting until the end of a series of forums seeking public input before making their decision on a spending plan and on whether to put it into ordinance form.

The last of those forums was held Friday. Schillo and Mikels will discuss their options and public opinion Monday, and could then begin drafting an ordinance with an eye on presenting it at the board's Oct. 24 meeting.

That would mean the supervisors would vote on the law at the last meeting before the November election.

Mikels had been against an ordinance a month ago, arguing that it was a meaningless gesture because a future board could vote to overturn it. But on Friday, she said that she, too, was now leaning toward one, as long as there was room for reconsideration.

"Clearly, that's what the public wants to see," she said. "But, I don't want whatever we do to be so tight we can't have flexibility."

Supervisors say they want an ordinance that would be reviewed every five years, to keep up with budgeting and health care changes. It would also include a sharing agreement with local hospitals.

Supervisor Kathy Long said she also supported an ordinance.

"I think it's important to send the message to the citizens out there who may question the board's commitment," Long said. "On the 24th, there should be no question in anyone's mind that [health care] is where the dollars are going."

The funds were awarded to counties based on a state lawsuit against tobacco companies to regain the money lost on tobacco-related health problems, and were not earmarked by the state specifically for health care.

But proponents of Measure O were angered by the county's use of early installments to pay off a federal fine and plug a budget shortfall. They called the latest move political, coming as it does so close to the election.

"I've got some concerns about its sincerity, since it sounds like an 11th-hour appeal," said Michael Bakst, chairman of Community Memorial. "It sounds more like a political ploy than a deep-seated commitment to health."

Bakst said it was also a sign that, whether or not it wins at the ballot box, Measure O has served its purpose.

If nothing else, "Measure O has achieved one objective, which was to get the supervisors to realize that health is critically important and should not be overlooked," he said.

If Schillo and Mikels don't propose an ordinance, they said they will nevertheless present a plan for spending the funds, based on the public forums.

Supervisor John Flynn said that should be enough, and even a five-year ordinance would tie up a future board's abilities to budget.

"The ordinance is a red herring," he said. "The board has no choice. The public has already said it wants [the tobacco money] to go to health care, and we won't violate the public trust."

Supervisor Susan Lacey could not be reached for comment.

There is some question about the legality of ordinances that tie up future boards' budgeting abilities. The county's grand jury, for instance, has argued that an ordinance sending money to public safety agencies may be illegal.

Mikels said county counsel is studying some of the ideas related to a potential ordinance on this issue.

David Maron, head of a citizens group called Coalition Against Measure O, applauded the move but said he didn't believe it was necessary to have the formal mandate of an ordinance. And he rejected the idea that the supervisors were caving in as a last-minute plea for support.

"It might have been politically expedient three months ago," Maron said. "They just must be hearing from the community that they want to know what the supervisors intend."

FYI

For more information on this and other political races in Ventura County, see the Los Angeles Times' Ventura County Web site at www.latimes.com/editions/ventura/elections.

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