LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has voted 4-1 on Tuesday to put a charter amendment on the November ballot for voters to decide whether a minimum of 10% of the county's unrestricted general funds -- roughly $360 million this year -- to be set aside annually for housing, jail diversion, mental health and other social services, as well as alternatives to incarceration.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who championed the measure that passed on a 4-1 vote, said it is about expanded access to safety net programs and pushed back against the idea that it amounts to defunding law enforcement.
"It's time to bring our budget into alignment with our actions, intentions and vision. The supervisors have said we want to move people from custody to care, and our constituents are pleading with us to expand housing and treatment options and stop relying on punitive, outdated law enforcement tactics," Kuehl said.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger opposed the measure, saying it would unnecessarily restrict future boards and make it harder for the county to manage through economic downturns.
Organizers on both sides of the issue had urged their constituents to dial into the board's teleconference to make their voices heard, but very few had an opportunity to speak during the one hour allotted for public comment on a range of more than 90 agenda items voted on by the board Tuesday.
Marcel Rodarte, executive director of the California Contract CitiesAssociation, said he didn't expect to sway the vote, which had been 4-1 in favor during two earlier board meetings, but said a "vast majority" of cities represented by the group had raised some concerns.
"What would the board do to ensure public safety throughout the county is not compromised?" Rodarte asked. "What metrics will you use to measure success? ... We believe the board and county owe answers to these questions and more to the cities and residents of L.A. County."
Kuehl and her co-author, Supervisor Hilda Solis, also encountered strong resistance from Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai, who did not attend the meeting but warned during an earlier session that the 10% requirement could limit the ability to avoid layoffs during economic downturns and even negatively impact the county's strong credit rating.
The amendment as drafted sets a 10% threshold for direct investment" to address the disproportionate impact of racial injustice" to be phased in by June 30, 2024. The ordinance would 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."
If passed by voters, the 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.
It would prohibit such funds being used for or redistributed through law enforcement or correctional agencies, including the District Attorney's Office, but would not prohibit its use to cover costs related to trial courts. The ordinance cites only a percentage of "the county's locally generated unrestricted revenues in the general fund," not an absolute number.
However, Hamai has indicated that the amount at stake would range from $360 million to $490 million of this fiscal year's $34.9 billion budget, or less than 2% of all the county's spending.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, whose department budget totals roughly $3.4 billion, told the board last week the measure would force him to close patrol stations in Altadena and Marina del Rey and make other big cuts to public safety.
Villanueva has made similar threats during past budget debates, but later assured constituents that he would not be firing patrol deputies.
County departments are subject to an 8% budget cut for the coming fiscal year and as a consequence, the Sheriff's Department is facing the possibility of laying off 457 custody employees in October if no additional funding can be found.
No patrol deputies are targeted to be laid off. Kuehl suggested that the sheriff could boost public safety by moving custody deputies -- who oversee a shrinking population of inmates -- out onto patrol.
"I wonder that you don't question why the Sheriff's Department hasn't taken a number of deputies away from custody and put them out into patrol in the contract cities.
That's where I'd like to see them," Kuehl said, addressing Barger. "We're down 30% in terms of our jail population and we're still not seeing a reduction in custody officers."
In earlier remarks to the board, Villanueva said he would be forced to lay off deputies of color.
"By the way, those jobs that will be lost will be African American and Latino employees ... the last hired are the first fired," Villanueva said.
Barger said she believed in the principles behind the measure, but objected to the process. Barger argued that the board is already far exceeding the 10% threshold in spending on community resources and alternatives to incarceration.
"The charter amendment was not appropriately vetted and significantly limits stakeholder input in our future budget decisions," she said. "I cannot support an action that lessens collaboration with our labor partners, our own county departments and the general public that we have been elected to serve."
ALADS lawyers sent a letter to the board stating that the county is in violation of an employee relations ordinance requiring 90 days notice to labor unions of any amendment to the charter, as well as state law requiring the county to "meet and confer" with the unions.
The challenge on legal grounds was echoed by the Service EmployeesUnion International Local 721 and 14 other unions united as the Coalition of County Unions, which includes ALADS.
The Los Angeles County Federation ofLabor, AFL-CIO said it would set a dangerous precedent and urged the board to withdraw the ballot measure.
The county's lead counsel, Mary Wickham, told the board she could not speak freely without risking attorney-client privilege but expressed uncertainty about whether the unions would prevail in court.
Kuehl, who is also a lawyer, took a stronger stance. "We have not violated nor will we violate any of our agreements with our labor partners," Kuehl said.
Kuehl also denied that defunding law enforcement was the goal and pointed out that the amendment does not call for cuts to specific departments.
"To use the word defunding about law enforcement, when they continue to get humongous amounts of money, even should this pass, is sort of a joke. Noone is `defunding' the sheriff's department. I would call it ... `right-sizing," Kuehl said last week.
Though the measure does not designate how the 10% would be allocated, in a statement issued after the vote, Solis highlighted the need for investment in underserved communities of color.
"With today's board vote, we continue on our path to dismantle structural racism and longstanding inequities within our systems that have harmed communities for far too long," Solis said.
"Decades of underinvestment partly responsible for the high COVID-19 case rates in our communities of color. It is clear that maintaining the status quo is unacceptable. ...This is about putting the power back in the hands of the voters -- where it belongs."
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.