Ventura County supervisors harshly rebutted criticism Tuesday that they are giving short shrift to public safety budgets, arguing that previous spending by law enforcement officials was driving the county toward bankruptcy.
If the board had not reined in public safety spending, Supervisor Steve Bennett said, law enforcement programs would have eaten up an ever-greater portion of general fund dollars, threatening insolvency.
"If we go bankrupt, we are a less-safe county," Bennett said. "We will have less money for public safety programs in the long run."
Supervisor Judy Mikels was even more blunt, telling law enforcement officials to face the reality of shrinking revenues in a shaky wartime economy.
"Yes, public safety is a priority of this board and certainly of our citizens," she said. "But we have other things we have to do.... Snitting at one another in the newspapers is not going to help find the answers."
The board's comments came a day after Dist. Atty. Greg Totten and Sheriff Bob Brooks issued statements accusing the board of inadequately funding their departments.
Totten and Brooks contend supervisors have been withholding money their offices are entitled to under a decade-old public safety funding ordinance.
Totten said the district attorney's office should receive $2.8 million more than county administrators are recommending for the 2003-04 fiscal year.
Brooks said his department's shortfall is closer to $8 million.
At issue is the board's 2001 decision to alter the funding law by holding law enforcement's annual general fund increases to the actual cost of inflation, about 3.75%.
Before that, a complex formula that included the cost of salary and benefit increases was used, generating double-digit annual increases for much of the 1990s.
In addition, the four public safety agencies split all of the proceeds from a statewide voter-approved half-cent sales tax. Proposition 172 generates more than $50 million annually.
The generous funding led to what former Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury has called "a golden age of law enforcement," a period of rapid expansion in the number of deputies in patrol cars and prosecutors in the courts.
Law enforcement officials argue that today's leaner budgets will result in job losses and a resulting decline in public protection. They contend that is a mistake as the county begins to see an uptick in crime and the possibility of terrorist attacks.
After Tuesday's meeting, Brooks said he did not want to see his disagreement with supervisors deteriorate into a personal battle.
But he will not stop trying to make his case, the sheriff said.
"I have an obligation to inform the public and I will inform the public," he said.
Jeff Bennett, a top deputy to Totten, said the district attorney had already outlined his position and would not comment further.
The battle over public safety funding comes as the county faces a $15-million shortfall for the upcoming budget year. That does not include possible reductions in state and federal funding.
On Tuesday, County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston told supervisors he would like to recommend more funding for public safety. But given the tough financial year ahead, it is not feasible, Johnston said.
"We've got to figure out a way to somehow live within our means," he told board members.
As it stands, the four public safety departments will be getting nearly 83% of all new general fund revenue, the chief executive said. Health departments will share the rest, while other government services, such as the clerk's office and the elections division, will get no increases or see funding reductions.
Departments have been asked to submit plans on how they will meet their budget targets.
Layoff notices may become necessary, but that will not be clear until May, Johnston said.