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O.C. Weighs Revenue Split

Supervisors question fire and sheriff's officials on the effect of an initiative that would create a new formula for sharing sales-tax funds.

June 15, 2005|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

With a November election battle looming, Orange County supervisors on Tuesday questioned agency heads on the effect of an initiative that would give the county Fire Department a bigger share of sales tax revenue.

County voters will decide this fall whether the Fire Authority will get funds from Proposition 172, the half-cent-on-the dollar sales tax adopted in 1993 to help fund law enforcement and fire agencies.

County leaders differ on how reallocating the revenue would affect law enforcement.

In Orange County, all of the Proposition 172 money -- roughly $220 million a year -- now goes to the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office. Under the current formula, the sheriff gets 80% of the revenue and the district attorney gets the rest. The firefighters have long complained they are being shortchanged.

The initiative, which calls for no tax increase, would change the current formula so that half of any increase in Proposition 172 revenue -- up to 10% of the total -- would go to firefighters.

But sheriff and district attorney officials noted that their agencies have actually lost property tax revenues and the Fire Department has not.

At Tuesday's budget hearings, supervisors requested that the sheriff and district attorney provide details on how the proposed formula would affect them.

Supervisor Chris Norby, who opposes the initiative, called it "a $26-million siphon" because it could provide roughly that much to firefighters annually.

"What do we call this thing ... Guns and Hoses? Or the Orange Squeeze?" Norby asked.

Norby said he opposed the initiative partly because the Fire Authority serves less than half the county. Many cities have their own fire departments. But fire officials defended the initiative.

"I wouldn't call it a siphoning of funds," said Ken Blake, the authority's board chairman. "It's a reapportionment of funds, and it's not going to cost Orange County taxpayers anything.

"We're just trying to be fair."

But Assistant Sheriff Doug Storm said the initiative would deprive law enforcement of needed revenue increases. The Sheriff's Department budget for the current fiscal year is $409 million.

The initiative could also have a domino effect on other county departments, he said, possibly forcing cutbacks elsewhere to keep law enforcement funded.

With the county's jail population increasing, one effect might be the inability of the sheriff to open a new building next year at Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange. Storm said $12.5 million needed to operate the jail could be jeopardized.

County supervisors voted in September to put the initiative on a special fall 2005 ballot. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday ordered a special November election to consider statewide initiatives. All would be on the same ballot.

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