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Board Presses Funding Lawsuit

Ventura County supervisors seek a high court ruling on their challenge to a set-aside for public safety.

September 14, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Despite two earlier defeats, Ventura County supervisors agreed Monday to ask the California Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of a local public safety funding law.

Meeting in a special closed session, the board voted unanimously to seek closure on the matter before proceeding to trial on separate issues surrounding the 1995 ordinance, said Chairman Steve Bennett.

The prime beneficiaries of the ordinance, Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten, last year sued the Board of Supervisors over changes made to the law in 2001.

"The sheriff and district attorney's lawsuit is inappropriate and wrong and should be dropped," Bennett said. "Since they won't drop their lawsuit, we have no choice except to defend the taxpayers."

Brooks said he was disappointed by the board's decision. As he has in the past, Brooks urged supervisors to consider settling the lawsuit, which has cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

"I want to hammer out a meaningful compromise so that we don't end up at trial, because that's when it becomes very expensive," Brooks said.

In their lawsuit, Brooks and Totten alleged that the supervisors broke the law by shortchanging their departments' budgets.

Approved by a previous board, the ordinance guarantees that proceeds from a special half-cent county sales tax -- about $50 million a year -- goes to four public safety departments, including the sheriff and district attorney. The law also requires the county board to cover inflationary costs out of the general fund.

Supervisors countersued, arguing that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it takes away the county board's budgeting authority. In a separate issue, they argued that the inflation provision was so vague that the county would have eventually gone bankrupt if supervisors had not tied it to the Consumer Price Index in 2001.

An appellate court on Sept. 1 declined to review the trial court judge's July ruling in favor of Brooks and Totten. Despite those setbacks, supervisors are gambling that the state's highest court will accept the case for review because of the budget questions involved.

It's a worthwhile wager, Bennett said, because if the high court rules in favor of county supervisors, a trial won't be necessary. Filing the petition will cost about $10,000, he said.

"If we are successful, we save the millions [of dollars] associated with the trial," he said.

However, the likelihood of the state Supreme Court hearing the case is slim. Recent statistics show that the high court selects just 5% of cases for review.

If it turns down the case, the constitutionality issue would be settled for now. But a trial still looms over other issues, including differing definitions of inflation and a claim by Brooks and Totten that the county has illegally diverted $50 million that should have gone to public safety departments.

Representatives from both sides say a trial could push the cost of the litigation to $3 million or more. Accounting experts would have to be hired to give testimony, and depositions of dozens of county employees involved in the budget process would have to be taken, officials have said.

The ordinance has caused strife within the Hall of Administration virtually from the day it was approved on a 3-2 vote.

County administrators and public safety managers have for years haggled over the inflation formula. A previous county chief executive quit after four days, writing in a resignation letter that the ordinance was so onerous he couldn't do his job.

It has also split county government into two camps: those who benefit from its provisions and those who do not. Non-public-safety managers have publicly vented their resentment at having to make do with less money.

But Brooks and Totten have steadfastly defended the law as the will of the people, noting that supervisors passed it only after supporters had gathered enough signatures to put it before voters.

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