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County Ordered to Repay Taxes : Finances: A judge cites $5.8 million in property levies collected to cover jail booking and collection fees.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Financially strapped Ventura County must repay $5.8 million in property taxes it has withheld from local cities, schools and special districts, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled Thursday.

Judge James T. Ford found that a 1990 state law does not allow counties to seize city property taxes to cover new fees charged for booking prisoners into county jails.

Nor can the counties impound taxes owed to schools and special districts to cover property-tax collection fees that many counties began to charge in July, 1990, the judge said.

In Southern California, the ruling also affects San Bernardino County, where officials said they apparently will have to pay back about $8 million.

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The ruling could be only a temporary setback for counties, however, since Ford’s decision considers only whether tax seizures are legal, not whether counties are entitled to charge the new fees.

If the fees are legal, the counties would be able to collect them retroactively to July, 1990.

A hearing on that central question is set for Feb. 7 in Sacramento.

Many cities, schools and special districts have legally challenged the fees as unconstitutional and refused to pay them. Some counties have seized property taxes as payment.

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Ford said in an interview that he did not know how many of California’s 58 counties have impounded property taxes to collect the fees, which were approved by the Legislature last year to replace part of $700 million the state cut from county budgets.

The judge said he thought that only a few counties had seized property taxes and that his ruling would not be very disruptive to county budgets.

In fact, Elizabeth Hanna, the lead attorney for more than 100 California cities in the Sacramento case, said her interpretation of Ford’s ruling was that counties must stop seizing the taxes--not that they would necessarily have to pay back money impounded over the past 17 months.

Even if the payment is required, Ventura County would have little problem forwarding the impounded money to its 10 cities, 21 school districts and numerous special districts, officials said.

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The county has placed all of the fees in special interest-bearing accounts rather than including the money in its current budget, Assistant Auditor-Controller Thomas O. Mahon said.

Mahon said $6.9 million in the new fees have been charged to local entities since July, 1990. About $6.5 million has been collected through seizures and is in trust accounts. Just $5.8 million was affected by Ford’s ruling because of a legal technicality.

“We’re not going to just jump,” Mahon said. “We’re going to wait and see if the county counsel appeals it.”

Under Thursday’s order, the county would have to turn over $5.1 million it impounded as tax-collection fees to schools and special districts. None of the $650,000 in impounded city tax-collection funds would have to be repaid at this point, because the law governing city impounds is slightly different, Ford said.

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But $696,960 in impounded booking fees must be forwarded to local cities, the judge said. Mahon said the impounded booking fees are, by city:

Camarillo, $51,480; Fillmore $25,440; Moorpark, $36,120; Ojai, $21,840; Oxnard $173,040; Port Hueneme, $14,040; Santa Paula, $14,760; Simi Valley, $108,000; Thousand Oaks, $113,760, and Ventura, $138,480.

The county stopped seizing the city’s property taxes to pay the bills in July, Mahon said. Another $436,000 in booking fees have been charged against the cities since then, but city officials have not paid.

“With this thing up in the air, it just created more problems to continue to do it,” he said.

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Statewide, about 100 cities have maintained that the new fees have forced them to illegally bear the burden of the state’s poor fiscal planning. In June, 10 local cities filed a joint lawsuit against the county for withholding more than $1.3 million in property taxes to cover unpaid booking and tax-collection fees.

In the suit, cities assert that the fees are unconstitutional because they represent, in essence, special property taxes that have not been approved by the voters.

The cities argue that the booking fees violate the state Constitution and represent a double tax on city residents, who they say already pay for jail bookings and tax collection through their property taxes. Cities also argue that the booking fees--$120 per inmate in Ventura County--may exceed the actual cost of the service.


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