After years of seeing local tax dollars siphoned away by Sacramento, Ventura County's cities and county government are finally getting some back.
The $81-billion budget signed by Gov. Gray Davis last month includes $2.9 million for local government--money that can be used for anything from hiring police officers to filling potholes. This is part of $150 million that will be distributed to local governments statewide.
State legislators earmarked the money to compensate local governments for millions of dollars lost each year because of a property tax shift this decade. Since 1993, the state has diverted $3.6 billion annually from counties, cities and special districts.
Ventura County officials say they are pleased that the state has begun to address the transfer of funds, which local government advocates have angrily denounced for six years. But they note that the money being paid out is a sliver compared to the dollars that continue to be diverted each year.
County government, for instance, is slated to receive $1.2 million for the current fiscal year, far short of the $51 million in property taxes that the state will take.
"It's a small amount compared to the millions that have been taken away from us," Supervisor John K. Flynn said. "But at least it's a turnaround. It's the best news we've had from the state in a long time."
The county's 10 cities will share a $1.6-million pot. The amount of money each city will receive is based on a formula that takes into account its population and the amount of property taxes shifted away in past years.
Oxnard will receive the largest payout, $423,000, followed by Ventura and Thousand Oaks with $277,000 each, and Simi Valley, $254,000.
Among less-populated cities, Camarillo is slated to receive $142,000, Santa Paula $73,000, Moorpark $69,000, Port Hueneme $59,000, Fillmore $33,000 and Ojai $23,000.
"It will help pay for a police officer, so we're not going to refuse it," said Robert Biery, Thousand Oaks' finance director. "It was a nice gesture. And it is some recognition that maybe they shouldn't have taken this money in the first place."
Special districts, which operate everything from the county's library system to fire protection services, will receive a combined $127,000 in the payback.
The money is guaranteed to local governments only for the current fiscal year.
Although some legislators are proposing a wider redistribution of property tax revenue, any permanent return of money will be an uphill battle, said Larry Siegel, Ventura County's government affairs analyst.
"It's not anything we can count on," he said.
The property tax shift occurred as California was facing a deficit during its recession in the early 1990s.
Municipal leaders argue that with the economy now booming, and the state facing budget surpluses, all of the diverted taxes should be returned to local government use.
"We are glad to get this portion back," said Sheryl Lewanda, Ventura budget manager. "But we will keep pushing for our full share to be returned."