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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Sheriff Points to Crime Rate in Argument Against Funding Cut

March 06, 2001|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Threatened with losing millions of dollars in funding, Sheriff Bob Brooks is expected to argue before supervisors today that a proposal to slash his department's guaranteed budget increases could halt plummeting crime rates.

In a letter to the board, Brooks credited a 1995 ordinance that directs more than $40 million annually in Proposition 172 sales tax money to public safety agencies with a significant drop in the crime rate. The ordinance also provides for guaranteed inflationary increases for salaries and other expenditures.

"Ventura County's crime rate has dropped well over 30%--a decline that is unquestionably linked to the maintenance of law enforcement efforts made possible by this ordinance," Brooks and Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury said in a joint statement.

The county's two top law enforcement officials added that the plan to amend the ordinance "would translate quite simply into too few cops on the beat and too few prosecutors in the courts."

But county Supervisor John K. Flynn said he questions the correlation between extra police funding and falling crime rates, noting that the county already was one of the safest in the country before the public safety ordinance was approved.

"We've always had a pretty good reputation as far as low crime rates are concerned, so it's hard to tell," said Flynn, who met with the sheriff Monday to discuss the issue. Flynn said he urged Brooks to come up with a compromise.

"I told him, 'You've got to come up with some answers. You can't continue doing what you are doing,' " Flynn said.

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Others who support changes to the public safety ordinance also are critical of the sheriff's argument, pointing out that local crime rates simply mirror a national trend.

"Hasn't crime gone down everywhere?" asked Andrew Gustafson, a former assistant county counsel who has been outspoken on public safety funding. "Crime is falling nationwide, including areas where there is no corresponding increase in law enforcement spending. Unless he can show a direct correlation between his budget and a fall in crime, what's the basis for his statement?"

Gustafson also plans to address board members at today's meeting, where supervisors will consider a proposal by Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford to amend the public safety ordinance to help save millions of dollars in general fund money every year.

Hufford wants to place a 3.75% cap on annual inflationary allowances for the county's law enforcement agencies, which include the Sheriff's Department, district attorney and public defender offices and probation services. The inflationary costs are paid for out of the county's general fund, which provides for a wide variety of services and programs.

Currently, inflationary costs are based in part on salary increases, which can run as high as 7% to 10% a year. Since the public safety ordinance was approved in 1995, the county has spent roughly $14 million to cover inflationary expenses for public safety agencies.

If the inflationary cap is adopted, Hufford said that as much as $4 million could be redirected next year for mental health, the county hospital, planning, animal regulation and other services. Hufford is also proposing that supervisors consider approving a provision that would suspend the public safety ordinance during times of financial crisis. That plan would require a public vote.

Hufford has said that more than half of the county's discretionary funds, about $116 million for the 2000-2001 fiscal year, goes toward public safety. That's on top of the tens of millions earmarked for law enforcement through the statewide half-cent sales tax.

Hufford, who has projected a $7.3-million budget shortfall this fiscal year, has told the board that the public safety ordinance restricts their ability to balance the county budget.

Brooks and Bradbury, however, have said the money has been crucial in helping law enforcement agencies replenish staffs that were slashed in the early '90s. It also has become a critical tool for the agencies struggling to hang on to the county's reputation as one of the safest in the nation, they added.

That legacy has been bolstered by crime rates that have consistently fallen for the last five years, according to FBI statistics. The county's crime rate is about half that of the state average.

Jamshid Damooei, professor of economy for Cal Lutheran University, said that falling crime rates may have something to do with generous law enforcement funding. But more likely they are also the result of a flourishing economy, which has suppressed crime throughout the nation.

"It's no surprise that when the economy is good," Damooei said, "the crime rates fall. Unemployment is the biggest creator of crimes. So you have to look deeper" than spending for law enforcement.

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Supervisor Frank Schillo remains opposed to any change in the ordinance. He said the extra money has allowed local investigators to take on big cases, such as the recent arrest and indictment of 28 Hells Angels and their associates on suspicion of selling drugs to local high school students.

"We have a higher standard to adhere to in Ventura County," Schillo said. "The people here voted for [public safety funding] and that's what they expect. That money should go to public safety. So why in the world we're looking at messing with it, including Harry Hufford, I have no idea. If it works, why monkey around with it in any way, shape or form?"

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