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Fire Dept. May Get Funding Boost

Ventura County officials say they favor a plan to give a cut of the Prop. 172 sales taxes to their firefighters.

November 01, 2005|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

After years of lobbying, the Ventura County Fire Department today is expected to get approval for an annual share of sales tax dollars its leaders say are needed to make up for state budget cuts.

A majority of the Board of Supervisors said Monday that they would vote in favor of giving Fire Chief Bob Roper a cut of the estimated $58 million raised each year by a special half-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in 1993.

The money was intended to make up for property tax revenue shifted away from local public safety agencies by the state.

But in the last decade, the Fire Department has received less than $1 million, county budget officials said.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Department, the district attorney's office and two other public safety departments have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue.

Although the share that the Fire Department would receive would be relatively small, about $1.8 million a year, it would right an inequality voters have questioned since they approved Proposition 172, said board Chairwoman Kathy Long.

"There's been a void in the public's mind as to why [the Fire Department] never seemed to get a piece of the 172 funds," Long said. "It left people with the feeling that it wasn't fair. From here forward, there won't be any question that they are part of the 172 formulas."

Three other supervisors -- John Flynn, Linda Parks and Steve Bennett -- said they would vote in favor of the new formula. Supervisor Judy Mikels could not be reached for comment.

Ventura County supervisors, in settling the dispute, may have an eye on a much nastier fight over a similar issue in Orange County.

A firefighters union in that county placed a measure on next week's ballot to set aside a small portion of Proposition 172 payments for the Orange County Fire Authority.

County supervisors responded by putting three counterproposals on the ballot that would undercut or eliminate any share sought by firefighters.

Statewide, many other fire agencies left out of the Proposition 172 sales tax increase are waiting to see the outcome of Tuesday's election, said Roper, Ventura County's fire chief.

"With the Ventura County board's action, it avoids the voter issues and leaves this funding in the hands of the Board of Supervisors," he said.

In the past, supervisors have said the fire agency didn't need the sales tax money because it was adequately funded by property tax dollars.

Other public safety budgets have fluctuated in recent years while the fire agency has seen a 7% to 10% growth in revenue, officials said.

Tuesday's proposal recognizes for the first time, however, that the Fire Department has been hurt financially by the state shift of property taxes. Each year, the state takes a portion that in the past went to the Fire Department.

Last year, the state took $2.9 million from his budget, Roper said.

Roper said the new formula would allow him to expand services and restore cuts made because of the tax shift. He will detail those initiatives later this month, Roper said.

"We're excited to reach a conclusion to this," he said. "It doesn't make us whole for what the state has shifted away. But it does begin to address it."

Under the new formula, the Fire Department would not receive a set percentage of the Proposition 172 funds.

Rather, it would be entitled to a formula-driven amount that would fluctuate each year.

The agreement is not expected to substantially affect the other public safety departments' funding because there is usually excess sales tax funds at the end of each year, according to a staff report.

However, to address those departments' concerns, funding for the Fire Department would be phased in over four years beginning in 2006, Roper said.

Sheriff Bob Brooks, who waged his own battle with the Board of Supervisors over the Proposition 172 funding, said he was satisfied with the agreement.

Brooks and Dist. Atty. Gregory Totten filed a lawsuit before settling their differences with the Board of Supervisors earlier this year.

"We understand they are not adequately funded in these tough times," Brooks said of the Fire Department. "We support them as part of the public safety team."

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