Sheriff Lee Baca said Thursday that he will seek to place on next year's ballot a half-cent increase in the county sales tax to provide as much as $500 million to protect against terrorism and provide for emergency hospital care.
Baca said he will ask Los Angeles County supervisors to place the measure on the November 2003 ballot to ensure that his department has the money to respond to acts of terrorism and natural disasters.
If necessary, Baca said, he would be willing to gather signatures to place the measure before voters. If two-thirds of voters approved the measure, the county sales tax would increase to 8.75% from 8.25%.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Baca said Los Angeles County cannot afford to be unprepared. "The threat of international terrorism has not gone away," he said. "These federal alerts aren't an exercise. If something happens, we must be able to respond."
Baca is proposing that two-thirds of the money raised go to public safety -- most of it to the Sheriff's Department -- with the balance being used to bolster hospital emergency-care services in the county.
He said that despite Tuesday's passage of Measure B, which will raise property taxes to provide $168 million annually for emergency and trauma care services, more money is needed.
Baca said his proposal would provide stable funding for the Sheriff's Department, which is the backbone of mutual aid countywide, and pay for all police and fire agencies to have an integrated communications system. The proposed sales tax increase would continue indefinitely, Baca said, so that services can be built up and then maintained.
"When [the World Trade Center] towers were hit, police officers and firefighters in New York could not talk to each other because they did not have compatible communications systems.... The same is true for the agencies in this county," the sheriff said. "We need a mutual communications system."
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Thursday he had not seen Baca's proposal but "was open to hearing his justification for this funding request."
Yaroslavsky called Baca's announcement curious in its timing, coming just two days after voters approved Measure B.
"I don't understand what he's trying to accomplish, other than get a large revenue stream into the Sheriff's Department," Yaroslavsky said. "I'm not anxious to rush out to the voters with another tax. We need to remain credible with the voters."
Supervisor Mike Antonovich termed the proposal "an act of frustration. [Baca] has always wanted to do it. He is trying to find resources to fit his budget needs."
The Sheriff's Department's budget was slashed by more than $60 million this year by supervisors as they approved an austere budget. That reduction, Baca said, left the department struggling for adequate manpower and equipment to respond to a major disaster.
The county, he said, sorely needs to invest in emergency planning and new technology to combat bioterrorism.
"Ultimately the voters will decide this issue," Baca said.