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Showdown With Sheriff, D.A. Delayed

County: Supervisors urge a compromise on a plan to cap funding for law enforcement. Judy Mikels questions validity of dire budget forecast.


Heading off a showdown with law enforcement officials, county supervisors on Tuesday postponed a decision to reduce public safety budgets, instead seeking a compromise with the sheriff and district attorney.

Making good on his promise to push for cutbacks, Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford pointedly told supervisors that funneling millions of dollars into law enforcement hurts all other Ventura County departments and restricts the board's ability to balance the budget.

"The limits placed on county government continues to put county government in an economic vise," Hufford said.

But some of the county's most powerful political forces, including the sheriff and the president of the deputy sheriffs' union, also attended Tuesday's meeting and told supervisors that Hufford's plan would cripple the county's policing efforts.

Such cutbacks would "guarantee a reduction in services every year," Sheriff Bob Brooks warned.

After a heated discussion, board members opted to wait at least another week while the two sides work on a plan they could both endorse.

Hufford is pushing for a 3.75% cap on annual inflationary hikes. The restriction would limit inflationary increases paid for out of the county's general fund. Current increases are pushed largely by raises, which have jumped as high as 10% annually.

The county's direct contributions are in addition to the more than $40 million the law enforcement agencies receive from Proposition 172, a statewide half-cent sales tax for public safety that voters approved in 1993. Under pressure from the sheriff and district attorney, supervisors in 1995 passed an ordinance promising that all Proposition 172 funds would go to four agencies: the district attorney, Sheriff's Department, probation and public defender.

Hufford also is advocating that the county should be able to suspend the ordinance whenever the general fund is too tight.

Hufford's plan is the first serious challenge to the ordinance since its adoption. Tuesday's presentation followed Hufford's budget update last week where he told supervisors they were facing a $7.3-million shortfall and blamed the ordinance for handcuffing his ability to balance the bottom line.

Supervisor Judy Mikels on Tuesday lashed out at Hufford's forecast, arguing that the numbers can easily be manipulated to support one side's view.

"I have absolutely no confidence, none, zip, zero in the numbers out there now," said Mikels, adding she would not support any change in funding until she was assured the board is dealing with accurate information.

"The public wanted cops on the street and district attorneys and firefighters. . . . And I will not vote for a reduction in that or in a reduction in [public safety funding] until I get the right numbers."

Other supervisors said they were confident that Hufford's report, which said that more than half of the county's discretionary funds went toward public safety, was accurate and that some changes are necessary.

"I think this board lost considerable authority over the budget, which concerns me," Supervisor John K. Flynn said. "And I think that has to be corrected somehow."

In comments to supervisors, Brooks and Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Greg Totten, speaking on behalf of Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, asked the board to allow for extra time at the bargaining table.

The supervisors agreed, ordering Brooks, Hufford and other undetermined officials to work toward a compromise and return to the board with a report next Tuesday.

Hufford, meanwhile, also will work out the details for when supervisors would be allowed to declare a fiscal emergency and suspend the guaranteed public safety funding.

Brooks said he will dedicate himself in the next week to coming up with alternatives.

"We'll develop an array of options as far as our imagination will take us," Brooks said.

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