Despite opposition and pleas for a delay, the County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to charge cities about $120 every time their police officers book someone into Ventura County Jail.
They approved the fee over the objections of city officials who said that they couldn't afford it and that they might have to offset the cost by booking fewer people into the jail, thus jeopardizing public safety.
The supervisors told the city officials who packed the hearing room that they had little choice but to impose the fee because state funding cuts had left them $5.8 million short.
"The state is the rascal here," Supervisor Madge L. Schaefer said after the hearing. Although the state cut funds to counties, the Legislature passed a law allowing counties to recoup some of the funds by assessing the booking fees and requiring school districts to pay for property tax collection.
The fee, estimated at $120 per person, is expected to generate at least $1 million a year in Ventura County to cover administrative costs at the jail. That would free funds to offset cuts in health, mental health, welfare and criminal justice programs.
The city officials asked the supervisors to delay approving the fee until they could study its impact further and come up with alternatives. Some learned of the fee only days ago.
However, the supervisors approved the fee, which will go into effect Jan. 1 and be retroactive to July 1.
"We have to bite the bullet," Schaefer said after it was approved. But the approval also included a provision for a task force of city officials to look at alternatives to the fee.
That irked some city officials.
"The task force was a way to mollify people there," said Santa Paula Police Chief Walter H. Adair, who said the time to form such a group is before approval of the fee.
The possibility that police would book fewer people into the jail concerned Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, who warned supervisors in a letter that it might cause an increase in crime.
"We are concerned that cities, in an effort to avoid the fee, will be citing and releasing a majority, if not all, misdemeanor offenders," he said. "My office currently files approximately 2,000 misdemeanor cases a month."
The fee also could add to the workload of the criminal justice agencies, he said, if a defendant is cited and released and then fails to appear later in court.
Oxnard would be hit the hardest by the fee. Already financially drained, the city might have to pay $550,000 in booking fees.
Police Chief Robert Owens compared the fee to "charging the doctor for hospitalizing the patient." He said police might have to release people under the influence of heroin and cocaine rather than book them as they now do. That could amount to about 2,500 drug abusers a year who are cited and then released, he said.
Oxnard Mayor Nao Takasugi asked the supervisors, "Does the fee policy as proposed force cities to alter their policies to the point of being detrimental to our excellent countywide record regarding public safety and criminal activity?"
In Santa Paula, Adair said the fee will cost the city $77,000 to $120,000 a year. He said he is contemplating laying off one or two officers to offset the cost and possibly cutting the number of offenders taken to the jail.
But the supervisors refused to buy the argument that the fee might jeopardize public safety.
"That's a false argument," Supervisor James R. Dougherty said. "If they choose not to book someone, that is their decision. Don't lay it off on the board."
The supervisors contend that cities can better afford the cost of booking people into the jail than the county can. They point to undesignated reserves in the cities' budgets that could be tapped.
But the cities hinted that the booking fees might cause them to think twice about helping the county fund the operation of the new jail, which is scheduled to be built starting next year.
Alternatives to the booking fees were proposed by city officials and others. Steve Blanchard, vice president of the Oxnard Peace Officers Assn., said the fee could be collected from defendants after conviction.
Ventura Mayor Richard L. Francis said after the hearing that one possibility is for the city to book offenders at its own jail, rather than use the county facility.
"I don't know if it is even legal," he said. "It's something to be explored."
Simi Valley Councilwoman Ann Rock said city and county officials should band together and let the state know how they feel about funding cuts.
"We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more," she said. "Let's put our heads together and give them hell."