LA County Board to Consider Specifics Behind Charter Amendment on Spending

Church And State Separation Examined

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is set today to consider the specifics of a charter amendment for the November ballot that would require a minimum of 10% of the county's unrestricted general funds -- a number the CEO pegged at roughly $360 million -- to be spent on direct community investment and alternatives to incarceration.

The board agreed last week on a 4-1 vote to ask county lawyers to draft the measure after a contentious debate and strong opposition from the county's CEO and Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who both warned it would unnecessarily restrict future boards.

The draft language for consideration prohibits such funds being used for or redistributed through law enforcement or correctional agencies, including the District Attorney's Office, but does not prohibit its use to cover costs related to trial courts.

The draft amendment would also allow the board, by a four-fifths vote, to reduce the set-aside “in the event of a fiscal emergency that threatens the county's ability to fund mandated programs.''

It was not immediately clear whether that would satisfy concerns raised by CEO Sachi Hamai, who pushed back hard last week against the amendment proposed by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, telling the board that flexibility is key to sound budgeting practices.

“Budgeting this way establishes a perilous precedent,'' the CEO said. “If we look back 15 years ago and the board utilized the ballot initiative process to set its priorities for funding, I don't believe today's board would be supportive of it. Similarly, as we look out 15 years to the future, we don't know what's on the horizon.''

Hamai said the amendment could force the board to make deeper cuts in fiscal year 2021-22 and twice mentioned that flexibility has been key to the county's positive credit rating.

Kuehl countered that Hamai was putting a scare into labor partners.

“Inflammatory statements about how people will definitely be laid off if we do this are completely unsupportable,'' Kuehl said.

Barger argued that the board had no need of a voter referendum and is free to invest in community resources and alternatives to incarceration by a simple majority vote. She listed tens of millions of dollars of investments the board has already made in and on behalf of the community.

“We were voted into office to make these decisions,'' Barger said. “We don't need a charter to tell us how to do it. We are doing it.''

The draft language indicates that the requirement for direct investment “to address the disproportionate impact of racial injustice'' would phase in over three years to reach a minimum of 10% by June 30, 2024. The ordinance states that the set-aside could not supplant other dollars already allocated to the same categories under the county budget, although it was not immediately clear how that might be enforced.

Proponents of the amendment, who have joined together as Re-Imagine L.A. County, are pushing for a 20% set-aside, which the coalition calculates at $1.6 billion.

The county's CEO indicated last week that the amount at stake is significantly less than that. She said that roughly $3.6 billion of the county's own revenues --  as opposed to federal and state funding – is unrestricted ongoing funding. The draft amendment -- which sets a 10% threshold of “the county's locally generated unrestricted revenues in the general fund'' -- seems to earmark roughly $360 million for direct community investment and alternatives to incarceration.

Both those in favor of and opposed to the amendment have focused on money being reallocated from the Sheriff's Department to the community as a result of the proposed amendment. Though both sides use different data to bolster their case, the CEO made a back-of-the-envelope calculation last week that about 20% of those same unrestricted dollars are allocated to the Sheriff's Department's $3 billion-plus budget.

The United Way of Greater Los Angeles, one of the backers of Re-Imagine L.A. County, has undertaken a survey of county voters and found support for the amendment. That survey, referenced by various members of the board as well as Sheriff Alex Villanueva, has not been publicly released.

When addressing the board last week, Villanueva cited a national survey showing that most Americans do not favor shifting dollars away from law enforcement and has repeatedly argued that the board is being unduly influenced by a small group of vocal advocates for justice reform.

“I would submit to you that the county of Los Angeles does not have the priorities that you have,'' the sheriff told the board, citing a Pew Research Center survey finding that 73% of Americans believe that police spending should remain at current levels or be increased.

The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents rank-and-file deputies, has taken direct aim at Solis, posting her image on the home page of the union's website with a note urging residents to call and “tell her cutting 1,000 deputies from our neighborhoods will make us less safe.''

Solis has not called for cutting deputies from the ranks.

The Sheriff's Department, like other county agencies, is subject to an 8% budget cut for the coming year and is facing the possibility of laying off 457 employees in jail operations if no additional funding can be found. However, no patrol deputies are targeted to be laid off.

If passed by voters, the county charter amendment would allocate funds to be spent in a number of broad categories, including youth development programs, job training for low-income communities, access to capital for minority-owned businesses, rent assistance and affordable housing, community-based health services and jail diversion programs.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas agreed last week with Barger that the amendment had been rushed and implied that haste might imperil the board's overall progress on reform.

Supervisor Janice Hahn said she was comfortable putting the measure on the ballot.

“I feel completely confident putting this before the voters, and I trust the voters to show us again what their priority is,'' Hahn said at the board's last meeting. “Nothing speaks to all of our values more than I think this charter amendment does. Yes, maybe it was rushed. Yes, maybe it wasn't completely vetted. But these two big things happening in our lives – the moment of George Floyd and the moment of this pandemic -- compel us to act quickly.''

Aug. 4 is the deadline to approve the measure for the November ballot. Arguments for and against the measure must be submitted by Aug. 14 to appear in ballot materials, with rebuttals due Aug. 24 and the first ballots mailed out Sept. 4.

Photo: Getty Images

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