17 Cities Sue County Over Inmate Fee : Jails: Suit is part of a statewide effort to challenge counties' authority to charge a fee when booking prisoners. In San Diego County, the cost to cities is $154 per inmate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aiming to join a statewide municipal uproar, 17 cities in San Diego County have filed a joint lawsuit challenging the county government's new fees for booking inmates at the county jails.

The suit, filed Thursday in San Diego County Superior Court, is expected to be joined with several other similar challenges filed statewide that have been consolidated in Sacramento Superior Court, said a lawyer for the 17 cities, San Leandro attorney Elizabeth Silver.

Seven of about a dozen suits already have been joined in Sacramento, with the others to come, she said.

The suits mean that what began as a political battle has turned into a legal wrangle over the state's recurring budget squeeze, a contest about a particular set of new fees that pits cities against counties over who will bear part of the burden of California's fiscal woes. And neither side seems prepared to give.

"Here the state has mismanaged its finances," El Cajon City Manager Bob Acker said. "They raised their own taxes. Now they come and pick our pockets to balance their budget. To me there's something wrong with the system when that can happen."

Bob Lerner, a San Diego County spokesman, said the county has "never been enamored of a jail-booking fee," set in San Diego County at $154 per inmate, yielding about $5 million annually. "But, given the serious financial strait we find ourselves in, there is no alternative."

In July, 1990, the Legislature stripped the counties of more than $700 million in state funding to help make up for a $3.6-billion state deficit.

To help counties make up the deficit, the state gave counties the authority to begin charging local governments for two services--for collecting property taxes and for the jailing of criminal suspects for the 24 or 48 hours before an initial court appearance.

The law went into effect Jan. 1, but counties were allowed to charge the fees retroactive to July, 1990. San Diego County began charging April 1, Lerner said.

Now saddled with a $30-million deficit and 1,178 jobs that remain unfilled because of a hiring freeze attributable to the budget shortfall, $5 million a year is an attractive chunk of cash, Lerner said.

"On a good day our fiscal picture is tenuous," Lerner said. "Many of the cities are not much better. But the one thing cities have over the county is the ability to raise money," which the county, funded by the state, cannot, he said. "Here was a case where the state said, 'Counties, you can start charging this jail booking fee.' "

The new fee is projected to cost El Cajon $600,000 this fiscal year, City Manager Acker said. The city's position is that it simply isn't going to pay unless a court orders it to do so, he said. "I think the cities are not going to give into this easily," he said.

In Escondido, city officials have reserved $550,000 for the new fee but, like El Cajon, don't plan to pay a penny until ordered to do so by a court, finance director Clay Phillips said. Ironically, the $550,000 would otherwise be spent this year for several new police officers, Phillips said.

The lawsuit contends that the fees violate state law and seeks an injunction barring the county from collecting them.

Aside from the city of San Diego, every city in the county joined in. The city of San Diego is currently exempt from the fees because it underwrites several criminal justice projects, county spokesman Lerner said.

The suit names as defendants the county board, Chief Administrative Officer Norman W. Hickey and Sheriff Jim Roache.

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