After a hearing that drew 40 mayors, police chiefs and other officials, Los Angeles County supervisors agreed Tuesday to work with local cities to try to draft a November ballot measure that would raise the county sales tax to pay for more policing.
The board delayed a vote on the proposed measure for two weeks to work on a compromise with officials from the county's cities on such thorny issues as how to split the revenue.
"There is no doubt in anybody's mind that law enforcement in this county and in the cities of this county could use additional resources with which to deploy not only more patrols but more targeted suppression of gang violence," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "If we want to see this happen, we are obligated to put this to a vote of the people."
The hearing came after Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged that the petitions he submitted Tuesday in support of his own proposed measure to raise the sales tax by half a cent probably lacked enough valid signatures.
Baca said he turned in 173,000 signatures to the county's registrar-recorder's office. Although 171,000 signatures are required by today, Baca estimated that more than 10% of the signatures he submitted may be disqualified if they are not verified as registered voters who live in the county.
The five-member Board of Supervisors has the power to put a tax measure on the ballot as long as it can muster four votes to do so by July 27.
If the proposal is placed on the ballot and approved by the required two-thirds of voters, it would increase the county sales tax to 8.75% and generate $500 million a year, adding about 5,000 police officers and sheriff's deputies.
About 40 police chiefs, mayors and city council members from cities throughout Los Angeles County attended the board meeting to urge that supervisors put the sales tax proposal on the ballot.
Mayor James K. Hahn said Los Angeles was woefully under-policed compared with other big cities and that the 1,600 additional officers paid for by the tax measure would make a dramatic difference in public safety. Hahn said the LAPD had half the number of officers per capita as New York City, even though Los Angeles covered twice the area.
"We believe this half-cent sales tax will allow us to reach the tipping point in the fight against crime, to have enough officers to really do the job and not be reactive, but proactive," Hahn said as seven of the 15 council members stood behind him.
During three hours of testimony and debate, however, Supervisors Gloria Molina and Don Knabe said they had serious concerns that must be addressed before they would support a ballot proposal.
Knabe said he wanted any ballot measure tightly written to prevent money from supplanting current police funds. Molina said she wanted to ensure that enough money was provided to cover the county's costs to train new deputies, take accused criminals to trial and hold them in custody.
"Hopefully, we can round up more criminals but they are going to be jailed. They are going to have to be prosecuted. All of those duties and responsibilities would end up being on a county budget that is already strained," Molina said.
Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he would support a "properly drafted" tax measure but agreed that it would fall short if it failed to provide money for additional prosecutors.
"All you will do is strengthen one part of the system while leaving another part of the system weak," Cooley told the board.
Initially, county officials proposed that 5% of the tax revenue be taken off the top to cover county expenses, such as jailing criminals, but Yaroslavsky proposed that the amount be increased to 15%.
The board agreed Tuesday to discuss that proposed change and other safeguards with representatives from Los Angeles as well as the many cities that contract with the Sheriff's Department for police services.
South El Monte Mayor Blanca M. Figueroa told the board she was open to discussing ways to help the county defray costs not reimbursed by the contract cities.
Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla said he was willing to talk about how to split revenue from the tax measure. "The comments I heard today are encouraging," said Padilla, who nevertheless added that he was keeping open the option of putting a city tax measure on the ballot if the county failed to act.
County Supervisor Michael Antonovich was the most skeptical and proposed as an alternative that the county dedicate some of the existing sales tax to hiring more police.
If that idea fails to garner support, Antonovich said he would ask his colleagues to consider a quarter-cent sales tax increase with a requirement that cities match that money from their budgets.
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, however, said many cities were so budget-strapped they would not be able to afford a matching-fund requirement.