Cities Angered by County Effort for Fees to Finance New Courts

Times Staff Writer

Orange County's scramble for money to build a long-delayed juvenile courthouse and a new criminal court building has stirred angry opposition from officials of financially strapped cities who fear they could lose up to $5 million annually under legislation proposed in Sacramento.

To raise an estimated $65 million to build both courthouses, the county proposes to take a larger share of court fines and fees under a controversial bill by Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove).

Accusing the county of going behind their collective back, the cities of Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and Santa Ana, among others, and the executive council of the League of California Cities' Orange County Division have filed letters of protest and some have asked local legislators to defeat the bill.

"You'll have cities all throughout California opposing this bill," Laguna Beach City Manager Kenneth C. Frank predicted Wednesday.

"Here you have a county wealthy enough that it does not need federal revenue sharing--and passed a resolution to that effect--trying to take money away from cities that in many cases are not as well off as the county," Frank argued. "And we're certainly one of those."

Share Would Increase to 20%

Under state statute, the county now receives 15% of court fees, traffic fines and forfeitures generated by each of the county's 26 cities, which amounted to more than $2.9 million in fiscal 1983-84, according to the county auditor-controller's office.

Robinson's bill calls for an increase in the county's share to 20%, which would bring in about $1 million more a year--all to go into a 20-year courthouse construction fund.

However, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will vote on a proposed amendment to Robinson's bill that would hike the county share to 40%, which would bring in a $5-million annual stream of cash that county officials say is necessary to issue revenue bonds for construction of the two courts.

"There is no way the county is going to get 20% from the Legislature, let alone 40%," Frank predicted.

"The heat from the cities is probably going to be tremendous," Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley conceded.

Riley, whose 5th Supervisorial District includes Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, said consideration of the amendment and a board resolution of support for Robinson's bill were delayed a week after opposition surfaced. He said the matter was placed on Tuesday's regular agenda to allow cities an opportunity for comment.

A new juvenile courthouse, delayed nine years, and a second central courthouse have become two of the county's highest capital project priorities, along with expansion of the severely cramped John Wayne Airport and building a new jail to meet a federal court order to relieve overcrowding.

Many capital projects have been delayed since Proposition 13 cut county revenues 57% in 1978.

Other Financing Methods

Supervisors have tried other ways of raising money in a "pay-as-you-go" approach to county services. While some have been successful, there is not enough to meet the massive capital expenditure required for the courthouses and jails.

Yet, spurred by pleas from Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Betty Lou Lamoreaux and a grand jury report decrying unsafe, overcrowded conditions at the temporary Juvenile Court--a string of 10 decrepit trailers--the county began a search for funds for a permanent courthouse.

The need for more space in the Santa Ana courthouse has become so crucial that other related court offices have been moved out of the building into leased space or satellite Municipal courthouses to make room for more Superior courtrooms.

Along the line, county officials began looking at the city-county split in fines and forfeitures. They argue that the 85%-15% city-county split is an "archaic" formula unchanged in Orange County since counties took over operation of the courts nearly three decades ago. They point out that many counties throughout the state have long since renegotiated their share upward.

Moreover, they say the cities are sending more people to the juvenile and adult courts and bear none of the increasing operation costs, let alone the cost of new facilities.

A legislative analyst for the county administrative office said the cities have consistently rebuffed suggestions about raising the county share in previous discussions.

"Now we have their attention," said one county staffer Wednesday who asked not to be quoted by name.

City officials interviewed Wednesday denied they were ever approached about the subject in previous years.

The cities' opposition seems to boil down to anger at not being consulted, a sense that the county is better off financially than they and has hidden reserves to draw from, and also that the proposal usurps cities' control over their own affairs and finances.

"All of a sudden, out of the blue, as far as I can tell--with absolutely no discussions with any city--the county has decided to go after the cities' money. There is simply no justification for changing the ratio," Frank insisted.

Half a Clerk's Salary

Frank said a 5% cut in the city's share of fines and forfeitures would amount to about $13,000 annually--or half the salary of a clerk or maintenance worker. If the county were to win a 40% share, the impact would be quintupled to $65,000--the equivalent of two police officers, he said.

While the Santa Ana City Council acknowledged the need for both courthouses and said it was "sympathetic" to the county's funding problems, Mayor Daniel E. Griset contended in a letter sent to Riley last week that the bill "sets a dangerous precedent for mandating the use of locally generated and controlled funds." The council has unanimously opposed the bill.

If the county share had been increased to 20% for fiscal 1983-84, Santa Ana would have lost $119,375, said city grants coordinator Alice McCullough. Had a 40%-60% split been in effect, the city would have lost $596,873, she said.

Although it is a tiny share of the city's current $142-million budget, McCullough said, "We were as concerned about the process as we were about the numbers."

Bill's Withdrawal Suggested

Huntington Beach City Councilwoman Ruth Finley, president of the Orange County Division of the League of California Cities, said legislation in Sacramento is "unnecessary since state law permits (the ratio) to be changed by mutual agreement."

Instead, Finley suggested in a letter last week to Riley that the bill be withdrawn and an ad hoc committee appointed to discuss a possible change in the county's share.

Robert C. Dunek, executive director of the local league chapter, said most city officials he has talked with do recognize a need for new courthouses. But many cannot afford budget cuts of even marginal amounts.

"Many cities utilize that money to provide police protection," Dunek said.

Dunek said most are willing to discuss the issue. County legislative analyst Arlene Sontag said she is waiting to hear from Dunek about rescheduling a meeting of city and county officials on the issue that was canceled last Friday.

But even though he welcomed such a meeting, Frank said, "It is fair to say Laguna Beach would not consider a change."

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