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City, Counties Vote to Sue State

Local governments seek to recover $4billion in revenues lost in the reduction of the car tax.

December 17, 2003|Sue Fox, Jessica Garrison and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

After weeks of fruitless lobbying in Sacramento, leaders of a dozen California counties and cities voted Tuesday to sue the state over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's car tax reduction, a cut that plunged local governments $4 billion into the red.

Among those directing their attorneys to prepare lawsuits: Los Angeles County, which stands to lose $760 million a year if the state does not make up the lost revenue; and the city of Los Angeles, which could lose $150 million annually. The counties of Contra Costa, Humboldt, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Tuolumne, Tulare and Yolo also decided to sue, according to the California State Assn. of Counties.

Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss, a former prosecutor who pushed for legal action against the state, put it bluntly: "Sacramento, either we see your dollars in our police stations and firehouses ... or we will see you in court."

The showdown between local and state government has been simmering for months.

During his whirlwind campaign this fall, Schwarzenegger promised voters that he would reverse the state's tripling of the vehicle license fee, a tax that has supported local governments for about 70 years.

He did so Nov. 17, his first day in office.

Much of the money being refunded to motorists was earmarked for police and fire protection, but it also pays for health programs, parks, libraries and other services.

The governor has repeatedly vowed to make up the difference to cities and counties, but the fractious Legislature -- already grappling with a multibillion-dollar deficit -- has not agreed to come up with the money.

Many legislators have already left Sacramento for the holiday break, and local governments are losing about $11 million a day.

In Riverside County, which stands to lose $80 million a year, Board of Supervisors Chairman John Tavaglione called on the governor to defend local governments more forcefully.

"It's time for him to knock some heads together in Sacramento," he said.

The governor's office, as it has in the past, faulted the Legislature for "misprioritizing" cash so that local governments came up short.

"It's unfortunate that the cities and counties have chosen this route, since the governor agrees with them and stands with them," said Vince Sollitto, a Schwarzenegger spokesman. "The administration will, of course, defend the taxpayers of the state against these suits."

Sollitto said the governor would continue to press the Legislature to allot $4 billion from the state's general fund to make local governments whole.

If filed en masse, the lawsuits against the state would mark a bold approach for local officials, who typically collaborate with their Sacramento counterparts to get things done. The idea, as explained by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, is to force the state to produce the money that the governor said would be available for local governments when he cut the car tax.

"No one wants a lawsuit," said Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. "Government suing government is a terrible waste of time and a last resort.... However, the Legislature cannot be allowed to balance the budget at the expense of safe streets."

Former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eli Chernow said that, if state law guarantees cities and counties funding -- and they argue that it does -- it is "quite possible they can make a compelling case that the state did promise" adequate funding for police and fire services.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, the San Francisco Democrat whose support would be crucial to any deal, dryly congratulated cities and counties for their legal maneuvering.

"Good for them. Why not? Good for them," Burton said. "They ought to sue everybody, including the governor. I hope they just sue everybody."

"It's unfortunate that it's come to that, but you can't blame them," said Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), who supports reimbursing local governments for the lost car taxes.

In Los Angeles, ominous forecasts of service cuts came fast and thick Tuesday. County officials warned of severe budget reductions that would close parks and senior centers, yank sheriff's deputies off the street, free criminals from jail and pull lifeguards from beaches.

Flanked by Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, county Sheriff Lee Baca scolded state lawmakers for failing to adequately fund public safety, which he described as one of government's primary functions.

If the vehicle license money is not restored, Baca said, his department could lose 1,500 deputies next year. He said he would be forced to release all inmates convicted of misdemeanors from the county jails, even as the department's ability to investigate murders, rapes, drug-dealing and gang crime was severely impaired.

The county Fire Department, meanwhile, may have to close fire stations or lay off lifeguards, leaving about 13 miles of shoreline unguarded, said Fire Chief Michael Freeman.

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