Local Governments, Schools Look Forward to More State Aid

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bleak years of state tax raids behind them, school and government officials across Ventura County greeted Gov. Pete Wilson's new budget plan with optimism Wednesday, hoping to restore some lost services and reshape major programs.

"It's not bad at first blush," said Penny Bohannon, the county's principal analyst of the state budget. "But it's just the beginning of the long budget dance."

For the first time in years, the state will have the luxury of a surplus when the Legislature approves a 1996-97 budget this summer.

Wilson's $61.5-billion spending plan places the highest priorities on education, law enforcement, and programs that encourage traditional families and discourage teenage motherhood.

The effects of Wilson's budget would be felt most in county government, where welfare and juvenile justice programs would see dramatic change.

The new budget--flush with revenues gleaned from a recovering economy--would leave cities unscathed. Wilson even includes a proposed 15% income tax cut.

"The governor's budget looks pretty favorable," Camarillo City Manager Bill Little said. "I'm pleased that they don't appear to have a financial crisis, that they're no longer out raiding local government treasuries."

Simi Valley City Manager Mike Sedell said Wilson's budget takes away no city funding and provides opportunities for cities to pick up extra cash--especially in the governor's high-profile anti-crime programs that target teenage criminals.

Schools would be in good shape too. After years of little or no increases, school districts countywide stand to get a onetime 5.5% funding boost, including a 3.3% cost-of-living increase.

"This is good news, but it's not the answer to our problems," said Richard Canady, assistant business manager at the Oxnard Union High School District. "It took more than one year to get into this mess, and it will take more than one year to get out of it."

Community college officials said they were not sure how a proposed 3.3% systemwide increase would affect the three Ventura County campuses. But they welcomed Wilson's plan to freeze student fees at $156 per semester as a way to rebuild flagging enrollment.

The Ventura campus of Cal State Northridge also stands to receive a boost, but officials said they are not yet sure how a 4.2% statewide increase would trickle down.

Ventura County's eagerly awaited four-year campus near Camarillo would also gain from a $975-million school construction bond measure, Bohannon said.

The new campus is not named specifically in the budget, but state officials told Bohannon that bond money would go to the Ventura project, she said. Earlier this week, a Cal State system spokesman said nearly $1 million has been unofficially earmarked for designing roads and sewers, and planning structures for the 260-acre site.

Local police agencies might benefit most from extra money in Wilson's budget, which is laden with anti-crime elements.

For example, the governor wants taxpayers to have the option of directing 1% of their state income tax to law enforcement through a checkoff box on tax returns. That could produce $2.75 million for local agencies, Bohannon said.

Local programs that coordinate anti-gang efforts are also singled out for extra money, as are education and recreation programs that steer teenagers away from gangs. Wilson also proposes that children as young as 14 be treated as adults if they use a gun in a crime.

"These are the kinds of things we've needed for a long time," County Sheriff Larry Carpenter said. "The governor continues to emphasize law enforcement."

Although libraries saw no appreciable increase, the county's library system may end up with more money, officials said.

Both Sedell and Little said they would support a joint effort by local cities and the county to restore the libraries' traditional property tax base that was slashed in 1991 and 1992--when the state raided accounts that had been reserved for local government.

"If there's enough money for a large tax decrease, I would urge [them] to give some of that back to the libraries so they can operate again," said Little, whose city has a special library tax measure on the March ballot.

Wilson's budget also emphasizes locally administered welfare programs. His reforms would throw out welfare's Aid for Families With Dependent Children program and replace it with one that ties public assistance to work. Wilson's plan is linked to reforms in Congress that allow states to decide how federal welfare grants would be spent.

"Work will be the centerpiece of whatever is finally approved," said James E. Isom, director of the county's Department of Public Social Services. "The state would decide the programs it wants and how much money each county would get."

Ventura County is positioned to get more than its share of welfare money because it has already designed a program that would put welfare recipients to work. Bohannon said she delivered the proposal Wednesday to state Sen. Cathy Wright (R-Simi Valley), who will propose it as a new law.

"We're way out ahead on this," Bohannon said. "So when the federal grants come in, we'll be ready."

Educators said it was too early to know how they would use their 5.5% budget increases if they are authorized by lawmakers.

Finance managers for the Ventura Unified and Oxnard Union high school districts said they will learn details about education's share at a meeting with consultants next week. But they were pleased that Wilson has decided to give schools increased dollars for a second straight year.

The money will allow the Oxnard district's board to decide whether it wants to reinstate any of the 50 teaching positions and 14 administrative and clerical posts eliminated during the lean years, Canady said.

Teachers will likely get a raise and the district will be able to sink more money into updating instructional technology at its five schools, he said.

Georgeann Brown, budget director for the Ventura district, warned that it will do little more than backfill for the years when schools got no inflationary increase.

From 1991 to 1994, the costs of insurance, utilities and supplies continued to rise, but districts received no cost-of-living adjustment from the state to cover them, Brown said.

"It's still important to realize that this will not catch us up to where we would have been before the recession hit," she said.

Conejo Valley Unified School District Supt. Jerry C. Gross said the proposed increase is better than expected. The extra cash would allow the district to update schools with wiring to use new technology, he said.

"Right now, we can't even plug in enough computers because we don't have the right amperage at each school," he said.

The district is already planning to add three high school dean positions, pending board approval tonight, and is working to restore janitorial positions.

At the Simi Valley Unified School District, the additional revenue may be enough to bring the district out of the red, Supt. Mary Beth Wolford said.

"For a number of years, we have been deficit spending," she said. "If an increase of this size will be available next year, it may be the turning point. . . ."

She said the increase may translate to more money for teachers.

Community college officials said they hope that Wilson's call for a freeze on fees will help them reverse an enrollment slide that began three years ago.

Combined enrollment at Moorpark, Ventura and Oxnard colleges has dropped by 1,500 students since the 1993 spring semester, when sharp fee increases were instituted, said Barbara Buttner, spokeswoman for the college district.

But the state recently eliminated a $50-per-unit fee for community college applicants who hold a bachelor's degree. As of Jan. 1, college graduates pay the same $13-per-unit fee as any other community college student.

That rollback, coupled with Wilson's proposal to freeze fees at $13 per unit, may help lure back disenchanted students, Buttner said.

Times staff writer Joanna Miller and correspondent Catherine Saillant contributed to this story.

* MAIN STORY: A1

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