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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Supervisors Receptive to Cap on Public Safety

Budget: County board members say a proposal to bring funding increases in line with other departments may be needed.

February 28, 2001|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with another budget shortfall, county supervisors on Tuesday appeared more willing than ever to consider altering a restrictive ordinance that guarantees annual cost-of-living increases for its public safety departments.

Supervisors John Flynn, Steve Bennett, Kathy Long and Judy Mikels said they are willing to take a serious look at county administrator Harry Hufford's proposal, which advocates a strict 3.75% cap on annual budget increases and suggests withholding county funds when overall finances are thin.

"Those numbers really confirm what I've been saying all along," Flynn said. "We can't continue down this road. It will destroy the vitality of the rest of county government."

However, Supervisor Frank Schillo said he remains staunchly opposed to any alterations.

It's a bad idea to withhold money from public safety during financial emergencies, Schillo said, in part because such a move would require a vote from county residents.

"And they already voted on Proposition 172," said Schillo, referring to a successful 1993 initiative that earmarks a half-cent sales tax for public safety agencies. "So why go back? I heard them the first time. I won't support it."

And there are other signs that altering the funding formula might be a hard sell.

Taxpayer advocate Jere Robings said he is wary of any plan to withhold money from the sheriff or district attorney whenever the county can't balance its budget, noting the county always seems to be in crisis mode.

"Once they're allowed to do that, once they have the opportunity to redirect that money," Robings said, "it will never get back to public safety, because there will always be an emergency."

Hufford, who is set to formally reveal his plan to supervisors Thursday, wasted no time making his case to board members that they must rein in what he called runaway spending for law enforcement.

During a presentation on the budget, Hufford said the county is facing a $7.3-million shortfall in fiscal 2001-02.

Hufford, who retires in April, peppered his presentation with comments on the discrepancy between spending for law enforcement and spending for other departments. More than half of all discretionary funds, $116.8 million, has been set aside for public safety, he said.

"This board is making an incredible investment in criminal justice," Hufford said. "And it really handcuffs what you can do. . . . We don't keep going back there [to public safety budgets] because we don't like them. We keep going back there because that's where the money is."

Records show budgets for public safety have swelled about 70% since 1993, while the county budget saw a 29% increase during the same period.

Hufford reinforced his message in a meeting with reporters after his presentation, saying the county will be hard-pressed to make anything else a priority under current spending formulas.

"They want to put money in mental health, in health care," Hufford said. "And they are hamstrung. It's not there. They absolutely can't do that because of [the ordinance]."

Supervisors passed a subsequent ordinance in 1995 guaranteeing all Proposition 172 money would go only to the county's four public safety agencies: probation, fire, district attorney and the Sheriff's Department, which gets the largest cut of the added sales tax, which generates more than $40 million annually.

In addition, the agencies are guaranteed general fund money to cover spending increases brought on by inflation.

Most increases are driven by salary and benefit hikes, which have jumped as much as 10% in the past.

Hufford wants to focus on these increases, forcing each agency to accept inflation hikes linked to the Consumer Price Index, which is currently about 3.75%.

Brooks has already promised to fight such restrictions.

Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury, who helped lead the 1995 campaign that resulted in the ordinance, did not return phone calls Tuesday.

Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Greg Totten said Bradbury is reluctant to discuss the issue until Hufford's formal proposal has been submitted.

He added, however, that the district attorney is wary of any tinkering with the ordinance.

"Obviously, we are very concerned about the proposal and we want to look at it very carefully," Totten said.

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