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Let Baca Go to the Voters

Supervisors should guarantee his initiative a place on the ballot. Public safety is at stake.

June 28, 2004

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has until Wednesday to collect the 171,000 signatures required to place his proposed sales-tax hike for public safety on the November ballot. Two weeks ago, the experts said he never would make it. Now the race to get on the ballot could go down to the wire.

Or it could be decided at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting -- if the county supervisors vote to put the initiative on the ballot no matter what happens the following day.

Hey, we're all for suspense. But we're also for hiring more deputies and police officers, which is what boosting the sales tax to 8.75% would do. Action by the supervisors is the only guarantee that the proposed half-cent hike will go to a public vote, as required by state law.

A surprising 63% of typically tax-wary county residents voiced support for the tax hike, according to a Public Policy Institute poll. If Baca's petition falls short, it will be because he wasn't able to raise enough money to pay the professional signature-gatherers' going rate of $3.50 per John Hancock.

As regular readers know, this editorial page is no fan of California's out-of-control initiative fixation. To name just one problem, signature-gathering has become a paid profession, not a measure of grass-roots support. Baca's experience bears this out, in reverse.

Ballot-box budgeting also typically earmarks funds for specific uses, making it harder for elected officials to stretch resources to meet the most needs. Public safety, however, is not a narrow interest.

In many of the county's neighborhoods beset by gang violence, it is a matter of life and death. Besides the personal toll, violence exacts a public price in the millions of dollars that it costs for taxpayer-supported hospitals and in lost tourism and business.

The county had too few law enforcement officers even before California's budget crisis. The Los Angeles Police Department, slated to get a third of the estimated $500 million the tax would bring in each year, has 9,130 officers, one for every 404 residents. New York City, which hiked taxes to hire cops, has 36,300 officers, one for every 220 residents.

The proposed tax increase, a third of which would go to other police departments and a third to the Sheriff's Department, would bring in enough money to hire 5,000 officers countywide.

Baca's department has suffered $166.8 million in cuts over the last two years because of the state budget crisis. The stress on staffing can be seen in the early release of hundreds of prisoners from county jails, not to mention five inmates killed in jail.

A recent county audit found that the county is undercharging the 40 or so cities that hire the Sheriff's Department to provide police services. Baca should raise those fees. But that alone won't patch the hole in his budget.

What would help would be for Sacramento to stop siphoning revenue from local governments to balance the state budget. But until then, local governments are left with few good choices.

There will be time between now and November to argue whether public safety takes precedence over the county's other dire needs, from transportation to healthcare. Voters deserve a chance to have that debate.

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