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Bill Would Benefit Families of Slain State Employees : Legislation: Measure would give lifetime financial aid to victims’ loved ones. But proposal is criticized as too costly.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The families of two state workers killed during a shooting rampage at an unemployment office in Oxnard in December would receive lifetime benefits under legislation proposed by state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara).

The proposal, however, is already drawing criticism from local taxpayer advocates, who say they appreciate the sentiment but believe that it would be too costly for a state already mired in debt.

“It’s a wonderful idea,” said Lindsay Nielson, president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn. “But I don’t think we can afford it.”

The families of Phillip Villegas, 43, of Oxnard and Anna Velasco, 42, of Fillmore would be among the first recipients of the lifetime benefits if Hart’s bill is passed. Villegas and Velasco were killed Dec. 2 when a gunman entered the Oxnard office of the state Employment Development Department and began shooting at employees.

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Hart said his bill would give families of all state employees killed by acts of violence in the workplace benefits comparable to those received by families of state law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.

The proposed legislation calls for the surviving spouse to receive 75% of the victim’s salary for life--rather than six months--even if that person remarries. If the only survivor is a child, the benefit would continue until the child reaches age 22.

Dick Clemence, executive director of the Ventura County Alliance of Taxpayers, said Hart’s bill is flawed because it doesn’t even consider whether a victim’s spouse is financially needy. He also questioned the rationale of providing lifetime benefits to a surviving spouse, particularly one young in age, who chooses to remarry.

“We’ve got a grab bag of goodies that we’re offering government employees at a time when we can’t provide enough police officers on the street,” Clemence said. “I have the utmost sympathy for people in this situation, but reason must reign.”

Both Clemence and Nielson, however, said they support special death benefits for public safety officers because of the dangerous nature of their job.

Hart defended his bill, saying, “I don’t see why state employees should be treated any different than public safety officers. . . . I think it’s a false distinction. With the way things are, many of the jobs of state employees are becoming more hazardous.”

He pointed out that death benefits provided to the families of public safety officers are also not based on the marital or financial status of the surviving spouse. “I don’t think we want (the government) to get into making those kinds of decisions,” he said.

The senator said the cost of the death benefits would be minimal. “We’re looking at maybe $100,000 a year (paid out in benefits) in a state with an $80-billion budget,” he said.

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Hart’s aide, Jose Sigala, added that in eight years, only five families, including those of the two state employees killed in Oxnard, would have qualified to receive the benefits.

“Based upon recent history, this is not a significant expenditure,” Hart said.

The bill is scheduled to be reviewed by the Legislature’s Public Employees Retirement System Committee on April 4.

Hart is asking that the bill be made retroactive to July, 1993, to compensate the families of Villegas and Velasco. Villegas is survived by his wife, Karen, 43, and their two children, Lisa and Phillip Jr. Velasco is survived by her husband, Salvador, 43.

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Karen Villegas and Salvador Velasco could not be reached for comment.

Anna Velasco’s brother, Carlos Vargas, said he has not had time to consider Hart’s bill or how it might benefit his brother-in-law Salvador, who is employed as a forklift operator at a Fillmore packinghouse.

“Money is always a help,” Vargas said. “But it doesn’t matter what amount of money they give you, it won’t bring that person back.”

Also killed during the shooting spree at the Oxnard unemployment office were jobs counselor Richard Bateman of Ventura and Oxnard Police Detective James E. O’Brien.

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Gunman Alan Winterbourne was shot to death by police after a chase that led to the unemployment office in Ventura.


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