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THE SPECIAL ELECTION

Measure D Highlights the Great Divide in O.C. Over Use of Sales Tax Funds

October 23, 2005|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Orange County firefighters and county supervisors have been at odds for 12 years over how to spend a special pot of sales taxes earmarked for public safety. Now they're asking voters to get in the middle of it.

On Nov. 8, voters will be asked to consider a daunting array of ways to allocate the county's share of the money. Those options are called Measures B, C, D and E.

The firefighters took the issue to the ballot after failing to persuade the Board of Supervisors to send some of the tax money their way, even though fire protection was featured prominently in the 1993 statewide campaign for the tax.

Now they are pushing -- with their union's support -- Measure D, which would earmark some of the tax revenue for the Orange County Fire Authority. Created in 1995, it provides fire service to the county's unincorporated areas and 22 of its 34 cities.

Supervisors have fired back. They put three alternatives on ballot -- none with money for fire protection.

They offered Measure B, which preserves the status quo (with all of the county's share of tax money going to the sheriff and the district attorney); Measure C, which shifts a slice to homeland security; and Measure E, which allocates some for the county's Probation Department.

At issue is how to spend the half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase approved by voters statewide in November 1993 for police, fire and other law enforcement uses.

Polls before the election that year showed the measure losing until devastating wildfires erupted in Laguna Beach, Malibu and Altadena. Television sets plastered living rooms with images of firefighters heroically battling walls of flame. The measure was buoyed by campaign advertisements pleading for more fire equipment.

On the night of the vote, in fact, many firefighters who intended to celebrate at a downtown Los Angeles hotel were on the fire lines as Malibu burned.

The money has poured into Orange County ever since -- more than $2.3 billion since 1993. Most of it has gone to county government. Of that, supervisors voted to give 80% to the Sheriff's Department and 20% to the district attorney's office.

As the money grew each year, so did resentment among firefighters who they were left empty-handed. Of the state's 58 counties, fewer than a dozen give a portion of their tax money to fire protection, and most dole out far less than 10%.

Among those helping firefighters claim a share of the local money is the Orange County Fire Authority and its former chairman, James V. Lacy, a Dana Point councilman. A conservative Republican, Lacy is one of the last people one would expect to join forces with the labor union representing firefighters, but he said the issue went beyond arguments about which agency deserved the money.

"We need to have good funding of police and fire," Lacy said. "This is about keeping faith with the voters."

Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Campbell, who signed ballot arguments for the other side, said the county couldn't afford to make up the difference if sales tax money were lost to the Fire Authority.

Campbell, another conservative Republican, shared the concerns of the county's employee unions, which worried that workers and programs would lose money if the county had to plug holes in the Sheriff's Department budget. Campbell was joined by all of the members of the board, including Democrat Lou Correa.

"The people of Orange County cannot allow the greed of a handful of Fire Authority bureaucrats to jeopardize our safety," Campbell said. "This is a money grab that would put Orange County residents at risk."

The local fight began in earnest a year ago.

The firefighters' union, the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn., placed what would become Measure D on the ballot. It would require supervisors to give the Fire Authority half of any increase in sales tax money above what the county received for the 2004-05 fiscal year.

Under the proposal, new income for fire services would grow from about $7 million in the current fiscal year to $43 million in 2015, according to projections by county Auditor-Controller David E. Sundstrom. The Fire Authority's share of the money would be capped at 10% of the county's sales tax money received by the county, which will total $262 million this year.

In July, the Board of Supervisors added Measures B, C and E to the ballot. Measure B leaves the money split as it is. Measure C would siphon roughly $10 million a year into a "Homeland Security Infrastructure Fund" for equipment to fight terrorism and deal with other emergencies. Measure E would give 5% of the county's share of the tax money to the Probation Department.

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

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