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Sparks Fly Over Use of Tobacco Fund

As a citizens panel disagrees with the chief executive, Ventura County supervisors postpone the allotment of $8.3 million.

May 14, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Emotions ran high Tuesday as Ventura County supervisors clashed with the chairman of a citizens advisory group on how best to spend $8.3 million in tobacco settlement funding.

David Maron, head of the Tobacco Evaluation and Oversight Committee, accused county Executive Officer Johnny Johnston of using "budget tricks" to transfer most of the dollars to the county's hospital and mental health clinics.

Johnston and supervisors, meanwhile, chastised Maron for making remarks they say inflamed the public with inaccurate information about how the county intends to spend the money.

In published comments, Maron said proposed spending recommendations by Johnston would gut public oversight of the money and ignore the needs of youth, elderly and uninsured residents.

"These are simply disagreements," a clearly annoyed Supervisor Steve Bennett said. "The committee can feel frustrated that their advice is being ignored -- that is appropriate. But it is inappropriate and inflammatory to say Johnny Johnston's plan is unethical."

At issue are Johnston's recommendations for spending millions in tobacco settlement dollars that flow to the county's treasury each year.

The money comes from a states' lawsuit against major tobacco manufacturers and was intended to reimburse the public costs of treating smoking-related illnesses.

Johnston is recommending that all the money slated for the 2003-04 budget cycle go to health-care programs. But he and the Tobacco Evaluation and Oversight Committee disagree on which programs.

Johnston is proposing to give $7 million of the $8.3 million total to the county's public health facilities. The committee wants more money to go to private doctors and hospitals, tobacco education programs and nonprofit community health services.

The committee also is upset that Johnston is proposing to slash its annual administrative budget from $421,000 to $135,900. Doing so would "eliminate the ability of the committee to function," Maron said. The money pays for staff from Johnston's office to prepare agendas and contracts, take minutes and conduct research at the committee's request.

After nearly two hours of debate, the board agreed to delay a decision until early June. Supervisors said they wanted more information on several programs and suggested that a compromise could be reached.

But they rejected Maron's request that the public hospital and mental health departments be audited to see if they are operating as efficiently as possible.

"This was a good opportunity to clear the air," said Supervisor Judy Mikels. "This has gotten too emotional."

Several public speakers also pleaded for a cut of the money. Representatives from private hospitals, doctors' groups and mental health advocates all spoke of hard times brought on by the shaky economy.

Carol Luppino, whose adult son suffers from schizophrenia and has been in and out of the public health system, urged the board to give the county's mental health clinics as much help as possible.

"My own son is walking the streets with no shoes, unable to care for himself," Luppino, a Ventura resident, testified tearfully. "There were times my son could not get into the hospital because there were no beds."

Tuesday's standoff illustrates the tough decisions supervisors face as they attempt to close a budget shortfall for the coming year estimated at $20.5 million. They must have a new fiscal plan in place by July 1.

County officials have sent layoff notices to 14 mental health employees, and Johnston said more could be coming.

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