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Lawmen Say Budget Hinders Crime Fighting

Ventura County's D.A. and sheriff say belt-tightening will hurt their efforts. But one supervisor says the agencies must adjust.

March 25, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County's top crime-fighters say they will have a tougher time combating rising violence and the threat of terrorism under funding levels proposed by county budget managers for fiscal 2003-04.

Dist. Atty. Greg Totten said county administrators are recommending a $29-million budget for his department, about $2.8 million less than what he needs to maintain services. Sheriff Bob Brooks, meanwhile, said his $165-million proposed budget is $8 million short of the costs of running his department.

Brooks on Monday issued a news release outlining his concerns. Late last week, Totten sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors to make his own case against reductions.

Although both departments are slated for a 3.7% increase in general fund dollars, that is not enough to keep up with higher salaries, fees and pension costs, public safety leaders said. Unless the Board of Supervisors provides additional dollars, cuts in jobs and services are a certainty, both men said.

But even with the leaner revenues proposed, public safety will still receive the lion's share of new general fund dollars, said Supervisor Steve Bennett.

"Our [general fund] revenues for next year are going to grow by $13 million. It's projected we are going to give them 82% of all of that growth," Bennett said. "Health will get 18% and all the rest of government will get nothing. That is a pretty high prioritization of public safety."

Brooks and Totten disagreed.

Although the county and the state are facing hard financial times, public protection should be a top priority of supervisors, Brooks said. His office has already reduced its funding by $8.5 million over the last two years and has little left to cut, he said.

County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston told Totten and Brooks about the proposed budget targets last week. The men said they decided to go public with their concern to let the public know what is at stake.

The district attorney's office has already eliminated 16 prosecutors, five investigators and 10 support staff, Totten said. But the funding levels proposed for the coming year are so low that he will have to reorganize his office, reducing the number of attorneys who specialize in such things as domestic violence and gang crime, he said.

"I made a commitment that I was going to balance this year's budget, and I want to honor that commitment," Totten said. "I want to be a good team player. But at some point my responsibility for the safety of this community has to supersede those considerations."

Johnston has acknowledged that funding levels are not enough to sustain current jobs and services. But with the county facing a shortfall of up to $21 million, he has little choice but to recommend leaner budgets, he has said.

Totten and Brooks' comments are the latest salvos in a running battle over public safety funding levels. Four agencies -- the sheriff, district attorney, public defender and probation department -- received double-digit revenue increases annually for much of the 1990s as the result of an ordinance that protected their budgets.

But the Board of Supervisors voted two years ago to rein in that spending, contending that public safety budgets were ballooning so fast that other county services were being squeezed too much.

Totten contends this is a bad time to limit funding for law enforcement. After years of decline, crime is beginning to tick up again in Ventura County, he noted.

Although the region remains among the safest in the West, the cities of Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Oxnard and Ventura saw a 3.1% increase in the overall crime rate for the first nine months of 2002.

Sheriff's crime numbers track a similar trend. Meanwhile, preparing for possible terrorist attacks has also been costly, Totten and Brooks said.

But Bennett said public safety's growth is not sustainable in an era of reduced funding.

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