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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

County Aims to Keep Control of Tobacco Funds

Health care: Seeking to undercut Measure O, board OKs ordinance designating money for specific programs, including some for private hospitals. Backers of initiative object.

October 25, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With only two weeks to go before a crucial election on the issue, Ventura County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance they hope will allow them to maintain control of the county's $260 million in tobacco settlement money.

The board approved a plan to spend $10 million of the tobacco funds every year for the next five years on a wide range of health care programs, from tobacco smoking prevention to mental health services. A portion of the money will also be allocated to private hospitals.

The ordinance is intended to undercut support for Measure O, a Community Memorial Hospital-sponsored initiative that seeks to transfer control of the tobacco money to private area hospitals. The initiative excludes Ventura County Medical Center from receiving any money.

"I see this as an investment for the community in improving the quality of health care," county Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford said of the ordinance. "It's more bang for the buck, versus just putting the money into three [private] hospitals."

Measure O supporters attacked the board's action as a last-ditch effort to subvert the election process. They argued that future boards could vote to overturn the ordinance--which could be adjusted annually under the current plan--and spend the remaining 20 years of payouts on anything they chose, including debts.

"I lost count how times they used the word 'flexible' with this plan," said Mark Barnhill, spokesman for Community Memorial Hospital, which has sponsored the Measure O drive. "That's code for, 'We'll say nice things about health care now, and then do what we want to with the money in the future.' "

Speaking to the supervisors before they cast their vote, Kay Woodburn, a Yes on Measure O campaign volunteer, said there would not have been a need for Measure O if the board had earlier committed the money to health care programs. She denounced the ordinance as a short-term promise meant to fool voters.

"You fought to keep Measure O off the ballot, and you lost," Woodburn told the supervisors. "Now you're floating a sham ordinance in hopes of influencing the election. Had you done the right thing with the tobacco money in the first place, there wouldn't be a Measure O."

Supervisors, however, defended the ordinance.

"We have done everything legally and humanly possible to guarantee this will always be used for health care," said Supervisor Frank Schillo, co-author of the ordinance.

He stressed that the county ordinance will provide money for private hospitals, whereas Measure O would preclude the county hospital from receiving any money.

"I believe we met the needs of the public," added Supervisor Judy Mikels, who dismissed accusations that the board's action was a political stunt.

The ordinance calls for the tobacco money to be divided among four health care categories: community health care programs, nonprofit health care organizations, private hospitals and doctors, and matching money for state and federal grants.

Two oversight committees, appointed by the supervisors, will recommend how the money should be divided. Final say on expenditures, however, will come from supervisors.

Committee members will review how the money is spent on an annual basis, and could change their disbursement recommendations from year to year.

And although board members could vote to extend the five-year plan for the life of the tobacco settlement payouts--25 years--they could also vote to repeal the ordinance through a simple majority vote.

The first year of the current plan calls for community health care programs to receive about $9.1 million of the tobacco money. Private hospitals follow with $3.4 million to offset their cost of providing health care services to the poor and uninsured. Nonprofit community groups get $1.9 million, and the remaining $765,000 is to be used to secure state and federal matching grants.

In the future, however, the oversight committees could recommend the board adjust how much money each group receives annually.

Schillo warned that if Measure O passes, county health leaders would demand supervisors revisit another ordinance.

A public safety ordinance, which directs more than $40 million in annual sales tax revenue to five county public safety agencies, would very likely come under fire, Schillo said. That ordinance was approved by supervisors in 1995, two years after voters approved statewide Proposition 172, a public safety tax initiative.

"If Measure O passes," Schillo said, "you just watch the wolves gather around. All the complaints went away about getting [Proposition] 172 money when we got the tobacco settlement funds. It's going to pick up big time, if there isn't any money on the horizon."

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