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Supervisors to Appeal Judge's Budget Ruling

The Ventura County board believes a 1995 ordinance to protect law enforcement funds is not constitutional and weakens its authority.

August 05, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County supervisors are appealing a recent court ruling that found a local ordinance that protects law enforcement budgets is constitutional and should be upheld.

An opinion by the state Court of Appeal could settle the long-standing feud between supervisors and county law enforcement agencies and save taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars for a trial.

Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh ruled last month that Ordinance 4088 does not illegally strip supervisors of their budgetary power. The board unanimously agreed Tuesday to ask the state appellate court to review Walsh's opinion.

The 1995 ordinance requires the county to direct all proceeds from a half-cent sales tax to the Sheriff's Department, the district attorney's office, the probation department and public defender's office. Supervisors say the ordinance siphons money from other departments and programs, making it more difficult for the county to maintain solvency. They argue that the law is unconstitutional because it effectively ties their hands on budgetary matters.

County Counsel Noel Klebaum said that if the appellate court rules in the county's favor, it would not only save taxpayers money but also would prevent politically powerful agencies and departments in California's 57 other counties from trying to promote similar laws.

"If the sheriff and D.A. win this, you can expect lots of other local government offices and agencies to look for ways to get guaranteed funding formulas," Klebaum said.

In addition to setting aside all proceeds from Proposition 172's half-cent sales tax for public safety, the ordinance guarantees that the four agencies will receive general fund dollars to cover annual inflationary costs, no matter how high.

But in 2001, the supervisors put the brakes on public safety spending by capping the inflation adjustment at the consumer price index. Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten sued the board last year over that action, arguing that supervisors should have sought voter approval first.

A split Board of Supervisors agreed to enact the ordinance in 1995 after public safety supporters gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot, forcing the board's hand.

Attorneys for the county maintain that the ordinance is unconstitutional and should be repealed because it weakens the board's budget-making authority. In his ruling, Walsh said voters share budget-making power with supervisors, and the board could send the issue back to voters to have the law modified or repealed.

William Hair, attorney for the public safety agencies, said, "If we can get the Court of Appeal to grant us approval -- and I think they will -- we'll either see the Board of Supervisors sit down and talk about this instead of throwing up their hands and saying it's unconstitutional or they'll do what they should have done in 2001 and take it back to voters, who originally proposed it."

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