In a rare show of unanimity, members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday criticized Sheriff Lee Baca's proposal to let voters consider a half-cent sales tax for law enforcement and then shelved the idea for now.
Rejecting Baca's argument that the tax was important to restore local control over law enforcement spending, the supervisors questioned both the timing and necessity of a new tax. Their move appeared to signal the demise of the proposal, which Baca has been touting for the past month.
People who purchase goods in Los Angeles County now pay 8.25 cents per dollar in sales taxes; if placed on the ballot by the supervisors and approved by county voters, Baca's proposal would raise that to 8.75 cents. It would raise as much as $500 million a year.
Baca, whose budget is reviewed and approved by the county supervisors, first proposed the tax after Los Angeles voters last month approved Measure B, a property tax to help pay for emergency and trauma care services.
He said Tuesday that one-third of the money raised by the proposed law enforcement sales tax would go to trauma care, and that dedicating the other two-thirds to law enforcement would help ensure that "sales tax revenue is kept in Los Angeles County, not sent up to Sacramento."
Although four supervisors eventually supported Measure B, they made clear Tuesday that they are unlikely to ask voters to approve the tax increase being advocated by Baca.
They also dismissed Baca's suggestion that the tax would benefit public safety throughout the area, instead arguing that it was largely intended to protect the sheriff's own department. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, for instance, said that only about half of the county is policed by the Sheriff's Department, with the other half policed by the Los Angeles Police Department or municipal departments.
"The LAPD isn't going to get a nickel out of this, and [they cover] 35% or 40% of the county. Long Beach police will get nothing. Pasadena police, nothing," he said. "This is a tax largely for the Sheriff's Department, no matter how you slice it."
The supervisors referred repeatedly to their continuing concerns about the county's health department deficit, currently estimated at more than $210 million. As they have on previous occasions, the supervisors urged state officials to address that problem, which they say is too big to be resolved locally.
"The next time we have a sales tax increase, I would really like to see a statewide increase," Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said. "We have to address this issue of health."
Even Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who rarely opposes motions related to law enforcement, said he supported a redistribution of existing taxes, but not a new tax.
"We are already paying one of the highest sales taxes in the United States," Antonovich said. "Sacramento has hijacked those funds, and what we need is a statewide initiative that would distribute the sales tax so that public safety has a priority."
With the divisions between the sheriff and supervisors stark, Tuesday's meeting was marked by several sharp exchanges.
After Yaroslavsky referred to the Sheriff's Department's $1.6-billion budget, Baca retorted: "I need over $2 billion, supervisor, and the question is what you need, not what you get."
Yaroslavsky said Baca would have an opportunity to make his case to the taxpayers, and that Baca deserved "a Pulitzer prize" if he could convince voters that the department needed more.
Baca -- who is elected independently of the board and represents the entire county, not a single district -- replied by noting that the supervisors also plead for more although they have a far bigger budget than his. "You have a budget of $16 billion, and that's still not enough," Baca said, his voice rising.
"I understand your point that you're underfunded," said Burke. "Everyone is underfunded."
Supervisor Gloria Molina said that funding decisions are probably best delayed until after January, when Gov. Gray Davis will submit his spending plan for the coming fiscal year. "I think we have to see what the state budget is going to do," she said.
The board will reconsider Baca's request to schedule public hearings on the matter in March.