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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Board Puts Cap on Public Safety Budgets

Government: Supervisors decide to limit annual increases to the cost of inflation, thus freeing up millions of dollars for other basic services.

March 14, 2001|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reclaiming control of spiraling public safety budgets, the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to hold law enforcement's annual increases to the actual cost of inflation.

The 3-1 decision is expected to end six years of near double-digit budget increases for the sheriff, district attorney, public defender and probation agencies, and free up millions of dollars for other basic government services.

Only Supervisor Judy Mikels refused to support the proposal. Supervisor Frank Schillo is recovering from heart surgery and missed the vote.

The move is seen as a final coup for interim chief administrator Harry Hufford, who retires at the end of the month. Hufford has pushed for the reduction for months, contending that the hefty guaranteed increases for public safety eat up more than half of the county's discretionary funds and leave too little for departments such as public health and planning.

"You can't have two parts of county government, a public safety part and the rest," Hufford told the board. "[Public safety funding] has created a moat between public safety and everything else."

Since 1995, the county's four public safety agencies have split all of the proceeds from a statewide voter-approved half-cent sales tax. Proposition 172 generates more than $40 million annually.

In addition, supervisors adopted a local ordinance that guaranteed general fund money would be used to cover salaries and benefits for public safety employees as well as inflationary increases for raises, equipment and programs.

In the past, the inflationary increases have been determined by a combination of increases in salaries and benefits plus a rise in the cost of equipment and services. Hufford, who complained that the formula allowed too much growth, recommended increases that instead mirrored the much lower consumer price index, about 3.75%.

In an impassioned plea to the board Tuesday, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury warned supervisors that adopting Hufford's proposal would be going back on a promise they made to county residents when the public safety ordinance was passed.

"It's sneaking in the back door like a thief and taking the guts out of [the ordinance]," he said. "You're gutting public safety."

Bradbury said that losing the general fund contribution, about $1.5 million for the district attorney's office, would mean that there would be fewer prosecutors available to go after low-level offenders.

"It strikes me that, if I were up there, I wouldn't make a decision this important if I didn't know the impact on the women and children of this county," Bradbury said.

But most supervisors were unmoved by Bradbury's comments and those of Sheriff Bob Brooks, who advocated that any change go before voters. Brooks presented an alternative public safety funding formula to the board that was ultimately rejected.

The boardroom was filled with law enforcement advocates as supervisors wrestled with changing the funding formula of the controversial ordinance. The ordinance was pushed by Bradbury and then-Sheriff Larry Carpenter, who gathered nearly 50,000 signatures in support of the cash guarantee, forcing the board's hand.

Schillo, Mikels and Supervisor John K. Flynn voted in favor of the public safety ordinance, which remained unchallenged until Tuesday. Former Supervisors Maggie Kildee and Susan Lacey had voted against the ordinance, saying it restricted the board's budgetary powers.

But the same supervisors who supported the ordinance brought in Hufford, a retired Los Angeles County administrator, in December 1999 to restore the county's financial stability. Armed with more than two decades of government experience, he set out a plan that included slashing public safety funding.

Hufford met with Bradbury and Brooks several times in recent weeks to hammer out a plan, but ultimately the two sides could not agree.

Flynn and Supervisor Steve Bennett have openly supported Hufford's plan to cut the inflationary increases. Supervisor Kathy Long had been open to change, but it was unclear which side she would come down on. On Tuesday, she opted in favor of the plan proposed by Hufford, who she was instrumental in recruiting.

Glen Kitzman, president of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Assn., said it was a bad decision, noting that supervisors have so glorified Hufford it would have looked strange had they rejected his proposal.

"Supervisors put a lot of their trust and faith in Harry," Kitzman said. "They've portrayed him in the public as being the fiscal hero in the county. So how could he make this proposal and then they [do nothing]?"

Hufford, however, said he did not see Tuesday's vote as a political victory.

"I'm not into crowing about anything," he said. "All I did was put my experience, my knowledge and my ability to work. . . . This was a tough decision."

Bradbury, Brooks and Kitzman said they remain optimistic that the board will do right by public safety come budget time. The board, after all, still has the option to use cash reserves from Proposition 172 money to make up budgetary shortfalls in public safety funding. If that happens, Bradbury said the changes could actually be a "win-win situation."

If not, they haven't ruled out another political war.

"Worst-case scenario, we'll address it at reelection time," Kitzman said.

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