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Ventura County Loses in Appeals Court

Justices let stand a lower court ruling upholding an ordinance providing four law enforcement agencies a guaranteed share of the budget.

September 03, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

A state appellate court refused Thursday to review a pivotal July ruling upholding the legality of a Ventura County ordinance that gives law enforcement agencies a guaranteed piece of the county budget.

The Board of Supervisors had asked the justices to declare the law in violation of the state Constitution because it takes budgeting power away from elected officials and allows no flexibility in hard times.

But in a one-sentence order, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura refused to review the lower court's finding, saying the case should first proceed to trial.

With two legal victories now in hand, Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten said they would urge the supervisors to settle the protracted funding dispute, which has already cost taxpayers $1 million in legal fees.

"We certainly view the decision as another battle won," Totten said. "We hope this will motivate the board to come to the table in earnest."

The alternatives are for supervisors to ask the California Supreme Court to review the decision on the law's constitutionality or to proceed to trial on unresolved factual issues.

Those include whether the county board illegally diverted $50 million that should have gone to law enforcement agencies, and how to calculate inflation on their costs.

Board Chairman Steve Bennett downplayed Thursday's decision, because supervisors could ask the appellate court to again review the law's constitutionality once the trial is complete.

"They have no victories on any of the issues they sued us on," Bennett said. "All that has happened is that one of our defense strategies has not been successful."

But Brooks said proceeding to trial with the hope of a successful appeal afterward would just boost the costs of the litigation to taxpayers.

"It doesn't make sense to me to continue," the sheriff said. "Even if it did go to trial and we prevailed again, we would probably have to sit down and reach a settlement agreement anyway. I'm hoping we can do that right now."

Brooks and Totten sued the Board of Supervisors last year, alleging that the county board had illegally altered the funding ordinance. The decade-old law guarantees that four agencies -- the Sheriff's Department, district attorney's office, public defender's office and probation office -- will share the proceeds of a half-cent tax approved by voters in 1993.

On top of that, the ordinance guaranteed that "any" inflationary costs would be covered by the county's general fund. In 2001, supervisors voted to define "any" to mean the consumer price index.

Brooks and Totten said that decision was illegal and has deprived their departments of revenue needed to cover sharply higher costs of equipment and salaries.

"From our perspective, it's a real stretch to say CPI covers 'any' costs when my costs are 14% and CPI is 1.3%," Totten said.

With the county board in summer recess, it may be weeks before it decides how to proceed. The board next meets Sept. 14.

Bennett said the board probably would discuss its options, including a settlement. But any proposal to end the litigation should come from the law enforcement agencies that launched the lawsuit, he said.

"The bottom line is the public wants us to make tough financial decisions," he said. "And the actions we are taking do that."

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