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Baca's Vision--and Flaws

June 09, 2002

The story of the county budget is interesting only if one can see it for what it is: not as a collection of multiple-digit numbers that must add up, but as a political document that tells the priorities of county politicians.

The budget struggle between Sheriff Lee Baca and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is about more than money. This struggle is a long-standing power play between the board members and the one department head who gets more popular votes than any of them. More important, this tug of war between Baca and the supervisors is an attempt by the sheriff to assert that law enforcement must have primacy in the budget, and that what constitutes law enforcement is more than paying cops and locking cell doors.

Baca's vision of his job is admirably more expansive than the supervisors' narrow "it's not in my district" view of their responsibilities. That said, Baca's beefing would be more persuasive if he hadn't overspent his budget the last two years. He inherited some debt, but he has more people on workers' compensation than any other area of county government. He also stuck the county with a $27-million court settlement that resulted from keeping inmates in jail too long and illegally strip-searching them. That problem began before his time, but it continued on his watch.

The supervisors, who have final budget authority, say the sheriff must make about $50million in cuts to his $1.6-billion budget. Baca says their cuts would reach $100 million. The week before last, Baca seemed to throw a temper tantrum by threatening to let 400 inmates, accused of nonviolent misdemeanors, out of jail early. He's backed away from that for the moment; he should remember that ultimatums usually backfire.

Baca must find reasonable savings and identify funds he can shift. That doesn't mean he has to sacrifice his proposed downtown homeless shelter, programs to help mentally ill inmates, prevention strategies and other pieces of his expanded vision of law enforcement.

The sheriff complains about an antiquated county accounting system and correctly says he needs an independent audit to guide spending decisions. Armed with specifics, Baca can better determine how much is adequate to run a department with nearly 15,000 employees, operate a jail system with nearly 20,000 inmates and protect the unincorporated county and 41 cities that contract with the sheriff. That's his core mission, but he shouldn't give up his fight for literacy, anger management, parenting, drug recovery, prevention and other programs that reduce recidivism but are dismissed by critics as social work.

Baca isn't the man you'd want doing your tax return. As a key county manager, he has to learn to balance a budget. But he's also pushing the county to consider a broader idea of what law enforcement should be. That's a battle worth waging, and it's a point that shouldn't be lost in the swirl of numbers.

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