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Battle Between O.C. Firefighters, Deputies Tops Ballot Measures

November 06, 2005|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

A group spearheaded by the Orange County deputy sheriffs union has collected nearly $1 million for its campaign to defeat a measure on Tuesday's ballot that would earmark some sales tax money for local firefighters.

A campaign representing firefighters, meanwhile, has spent nearly $750,000 to promote it.

The fight over Measure D and three other countywide ballot measure is all about how the county spends its share of the half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax approved by state voters in 1993 and earmarked for public safety.

The county now spends its share to supplement the budgets of the sheriff and the district attorney.

It's a complicated choice vote for voters, but political wags find some humor in a battle than pits deputies against firefighters. Some call it "shoots and ladders" or even "guns and hoses."

No matter what happens Tuesday, the winners will be the campaign consultants and printers who prepared the barrage of mailers promoting each side, grumbled longtime county watchdog Shirley Grindle of Orange.

"I'm just sick about all the money that gets spent on this stuff," she said.

Virtually all of the attention and money is focused on Measure D, which won a spot on the countywide ballot after firefighters gathered enough signatures. It would require supervisors to earmark for fire protection half of the growth in the county's share of the public safety sales tax.

The reallocated money would go to the Orange County Fire Authority. Created in 1995, it provides fire service to the county's unincorporated areas and 22 of its 34 cities.

The other three measures were placed on the ballot by county supervisors, who oppose giving any of the public safety tax money to firefighters. Instead, they have offered voters:

* Measure B. It would maintain the status quo, giving 80% to the Sheriff's Department and 20% to the district attorney's office.

* Measure C. It would give $10 million a year to local homeland security needs

* Measure E. It would give 5% of sales tax revenues to the probation department.

Voters will vote yes or no on each of the four proposals. If more than one passes, the one with the most affirmative votes prevails.

A handful of other contests are at stake Tuesday. The only city election in Orange County is a San Clemente race to fill a City Council seat.

Residents of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District face a bond measure, and a utility-tax proposal will go before voters in La Habra.

In the most recent campaign finance reports, all of the activity has centered on Measure D.

As of Nov. 1, "Taxpayers for Safe Streets -- No on D" had raised $951,279, with $178,736 in cash on hand and no debt. Among the most recent contributions were $25,000 from the Orange County Republican Party, $25,000 from the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. and $127,000 from the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

The deputies' union has contributed nearly $350,000 to fight Measure D. The Orange County Employees Assn. has given $250,000.

"Firefighters for Public Safety -- Yes on D" raised $561,183 as of Nov. 1 and was carrying $185,218 in debt.

The campaign had $62,873 in cash on hand.

Its largest most recent donation was $100,000 from the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn.

The effort also got lesser amounts from San Bernardino city firefighters and the California Professional Firefighters Assn.

Union officials have said that a successful fight in Orange County would encourage firefighters in other counties to push for their own share of county sales tax money.

Only about a dozen California counties give a portion of the 1993 sales tax revenues to firefighters.

Emotions in Orange County flared recently when Joe Kerr, head of the Orange County firefighters union, asked supervisors to stop the "No on Measure D" side from alleging in campaign materials that passage of the measure would result in the county laying off 210 deputies.

The board, which has control over the Sheriff's Department budget, has made no such claim. The deputies union countered that if the measure passes, the funds to be sent to firefighters over time would equal about $30 million a year, or the salaries of 210 deputies.

Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, addressed supervisors after Kerr and called his counterpart greedy.

He suggested that if prisoners ended up being released early because of a Sheriff's Department funding crunch, they might "go visit Joe in his community"-- a comment that spurred Kerr to demand an apology.

Quint declined to apologize, but said later that he regretted the remark, which he said was born of frustration over longtime union allies finding themselves pitted against each other.

"I'm hoping we will be victorious," Quint said. "But this was so unnecessary. The rank-and-file firefighters and rank-and-file deputies do an awesome job, and we've always worked hand in hand. We will again."

The head of the county employees association said his members got involved because they feared across-the-board budget cuts.

"If the money is taken from the Sheriff's Department, there will be cuts, and that would be devastating to all of the other county programs," said Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn.

Kerr, at home Friday painting banners to be displayed over the weekend, said firefighters attempted to keep the fight off the ballot by negotiating with supervisors.

But the board wouldn't agree to share enough of the future tax proceeds, he said.

Voters approved the tax in 1993 after being told that firefighters would receive some of the money, which never occurred.

"Our firefighters are frustrated," he said. "It's all about fairness, and that resonates with voters."

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