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Hearing on Funding Law Begins

Judge indicates that voters, not Ventura County supervisors, must decide public safety allotments.

June 19, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge Friday appeared to support the view that a law enforcement funding law at the center of a long-running dispute within Ventura County government cannot be changed by the Board of Supervisors, even if it causes financial harm.

California case law, including a pivotal Supreme Court decision, seems to suggest that any changes to Ventura County's public safety Ordinance No. 4088 must first be approved by voters, said Judge Henry J. Walsh.

"I don't mean to infer that the people are all wise and make the right decisions," Walsh said, "but they do seem to have ... considerable powers that we have to put up with."

At issue is a funding measure that was headed for the ballot but was instead enacted into law in 1995 by a split Board of Supervisors.

The prime beneficiaries of that law, Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten, last year sued the Board of Supervisors over changes that a new board majority made to the law in 2001. Brooks and Totten said the changes were illegal and have resulted in leaner budgets for their departments.

Supervisors responded with their own lawsuit contending the ordinance is unconstitutional because it took away their budgeting authority.

Walsh is expected to rule after hearing arguments from both sides. On Friday, he heard from lawyers for 40 minutes before recessing the hearing to preside over a trial.

Attorneys are scheduled to resume their arguments on July 12.

The case is being watched closely, not only by county officials, but local governments and other interests statewide who say it could set a legal precedent. Both sides have said they expect to appeal whatever decision Walsh makes and that the case could eventually be heard by the California Supreme Court.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. filed a brief indicating it has an interest in the outcome of the suit. The taxpayers group said that Brooks and Totten were correct in asserting that any changes to the funding measure must be made not by supervisors but by voters, said Tom Hiltachk, the association's attorney.

"The outcome of the case has statewide impact," Hiltachk said. "Voters should have the power to say how their money is spent."

County leaders say a ruling will be pivotal in determining whether Ventura County can continue to offer a wide range of public services or if funding precedence for law enforcement agencies would cripple that effort.

County supervisors have said the funding formula provided in the ordinance was so flawed that the general fund could go bankrupt if it was left intact.

The ordinance directs all funding from Proposition 172's half-cent sales tax increase to four county departments: the Sheriff's Department, the district attorney's and public defender's offices and the probation agency. Supervisors have not disputed that provision, and about $50 million in Proposition 172 funds is distributed to designated public safety agencies each year.

Additionally, public safety agencies are allowed to dip into the county's general fund to cover any annual increases in spending -- no matter how high they rise.

Alarmed by yearly increases of 7% to 10% in the first years of the law, a new board majority in 2001 voted to alter the inflationary provisions, capping yearly increases at the Consumer Price Index.

That vote is at the heart of the legal case.

Attorney William Hair, representing Brooks and Totten, told Walsh that an initiative enacted in lieu of an election could only be changed by a vote of the people.

"The power of the electorate transcends the power of the board," Hair said.

But lawyer Steven Mayer, arguing on behalf of supervisors, said the inflationary clauses exceeded the constraints of the California Budget Act.

The act gives local governing boards control over the annual budget process, Mayer said.

He argued that the budget act, and subsequent case law, prohibits anyone -- whether legislator or voter -- from enacting laws that conflict with it. That means the Board of Supervisors alone decides how much money to give to county agencies during the annual budget process, Mayer said.

"The message of the budget act can be summed up in four words: The Buck Stops There," he said.

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