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L.A. County Officials Want Funding Guarantees For Realignment

Susan Shimotsu |
March 2, 2011 | 12:38 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Gov. Jerry Brown's realignment plans are not reassuring to local governments without funding guarantees. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)
Gov. Jerry Brown's realignment plans are not reassuring to local governments without funding guarantees. (Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy)

With a $26 billion budget deficit still unbalanced, one of the many solutions California Gov. Jerry Brown has been advocating is realignment – shifting services from the state to local governments.

But greater power requires greater funding, something Los Angeles County officials want guaranteed by a constitutional amendment before accepting realignment.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors lobbied Brown and the state legislature Tuesday to allow the county to keep its property tax revenue to help cover the extra costs of taking on previously state-run services. 

Among the government services affected by the realignment is corrections, as Brown has called for moving “low-level” offenders out of state prisons and into county jails as well as turning over parole programs to county governments.  

“In some categories, [I agree with realignment] and in some categories I have some doubts,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said. “The state has already decided to take the juvenile justice program off the table, which was a big doubt of mine. It appears to me that the state is trying to do the right thing, and that is to allow local solutions and local management to take over. I agree with that in principle.” 

Baca said low-level offenders can be categorized as those convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual or nonserious crimes. But according to county officials, it is not nearly as cut and dry as it sounds.

“They say that these felons are ‘low-level’ offenders or they’re not ‘high-risk,’” said Tony Bell, spokesman for Los Angeles County Mayor Michael D. Antonovich  “But the truth is many of them are actually high-risk, high-level offenders that have pled down from more serious offenses.”

Originally, Brown’s plan called for transferring all parolees, even those deemed dangerous, and 1,300 “high-risk” juvenile offenders with the dissolution of the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). However, he gave in Monday and altered the realignment to only move parolees convicted of crimes such as fraud and drug possession to the responsibility of county probation officers.

The reduced responsibility does come with a price: less money will be given to county governments to fund other services such as rape counseling. L.A. County officials are less than thrilled with the tradeoff, mostly because funding is already such a big issue. 

“Public safety has got to be our top priority, especially in times of budget cuts,” said Bell. “The problem with the state is their lack of an ability to prioritize; that’s what it’s all about with government spending. The state needs to get its fiscal health in order before it starts to burden counties, cities and school districts with unfunded mandates.”

The supervisors voted 3-2 on Tuesday to press Brown and the state Legislature to allow the county to withhold property taxes. Under the current system, the county collects property taxes and sends the money to the state. In turn, the state sends the revenues back down the states, but each county doesn't necessarily get back as much as they put in.

The supervisor's action came one day after Brown released draft legislation to put a measure on the ballot that would increases sales and vehicle taxes to help fund realignment by guaranteeing monies to local governments through 2016. Most of that money would flow to the counties; some of it would go to K-12 schools and community colleges. If the voters were to enact the constitutional amendment extending those tax increases, the state would promise to pay the counties beyond 2016. But how exactly the state would get the money needed is left open. 

“The part [of Brown’s plan] that’s the most critical is to have a constitutional amendment that guarantees that the county will receives its funds and that the funds will increase as the economy increases,” said Baca. “There has to be a guarantee that the county’s not going to be caught because the state has capped the funding.”

The board is skeptical as well about a funding guarantee because the state, whose deficit is larger than the county’s $22 billion budget, already owes the county money. Brown held a two-hour meeting last Friday with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy to quell those concerns.

“The state is trying to balance its own budget on the backs of the counties,” Bell said. “The state already owes L.A. County $50 million for housing parole violators from the state. [California owes L.A. County another] $650 million in reimbursements for state-mandated programs. Trusting the state to pay and keep its word is like trusting a deadbeat parent.”

Bell also said L.A. County does not have the capacity to add more inmates or take on more corrections responsibilities. 

“Our jails are already overcrowded, signified by a lawsuit from the ACLU and a judge’s order that the overcrowding be alleviated,” he said. “Shifting parole functions to the counties – our county – will negatively impact every law enforcement agency that serves the county taxpayers, including the [District Attorney], the public defenders, parole and probation.”

Despite the opposition, Baca has already met with the Board of Supervisors last month with a plan to implement parole operations as efficiently as possible. He said his management initiative has three major parts: innovation, cooperation and education.

“Innovation involves technology, GPS and ankle bracelets for [parolees] that are coming out so that we can monitor them so they go to classes and depending on how well they do in their classes depends on whether we eliminate the ankle bracelets,” he said, adding GPS-mapping systems will allow them to make sure parolees are honoring the conditions of their release. “Cooperation is that the police agencies will work together. We’re the ones that make the arrests, yet we have nothing to do with the quality of the prisoner when he comes out on parole, and we should.”

The most substantial part of his plan is implementing education programs, noting that inmates are receptive to education but there are logistical issues with serving all of the parolees in L.A. County. 

“We should have an educational program for prisoners and we’re actually doing some of it right now in Los Angeles County,” said Baca, referring to Education Based Incarceration. “Managing all these parolees scattered all over the county means that you have to have a lot of places where they get their education accomplished. That’s going to be a tough logistical problem, but we can do it.”

While Baca remains cautiously optimistic at the prospect of realignment, Bell said local control sounds good on paper but not so much in practice. 

“I can assure you that the realignment plan is really a Trojan Horse, which is what [Antonovich] likes to call it,” said Bell. “It looks like a gift because it talks about local control, but it is really the state unburdening itself by giving the counties more responsibilities when the counties are already overburdened by the state’s unfunded mandates.”

Antonovich last week called a proposal from several California mayors, including L.A.'s Antonio Villaraigosa, to amend Brown's plan to eliminate redevelopment agencies as "loan-sharking."

Brown needs to get two-thirds approval from the Legislature to put the tax extensions to a vote. If it passes, it is unclear how long realignment is set to last.

“I think that once the state unburdens itself, it will have a hard time assuming that burden once again, even when times get more flush,” Bell said before offering another solution. “They’ve got to adopt pension reform. They’ve got to put a stop on the out-of-control spending, it’s going to bankrupt the state and then bankrupt the counties when the state tries to remove the burden of its own problems.” 

Reach Susan here.
Follow her on Twitter: @susanfromtx.



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