The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is set to cast a final vote Tuesday on 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 has pegged at $360 million-$490 million — to be spent on housing, jail diversion, mental health and other social services, as well as alternatives to incarceration.
The vote is expected to split 4-1, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger dissenting, based on the outcomes of two earlier votes on the matter.
Organizers on both sides of the issue urged their constituents to dial in to the board’s teleconference to make their voices heard.
The Youth Justice Coalition, a nonprofit organization which describes itself as “working to build a youth, family and prisoner-led movement to challenge race, gender and class inequality in Los Angeles County’s and California’s juvenile injustice systems,” reached out to its members asking them to submit written comments to the board via email and jump on the call early to get into the queue of residents allowed to speak during the one hour allotted for public comment.
“This ballot measure is historic,” the email from YJC read.
Meanwhile, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs circulated an email stating, “All law enforcement supporters, we need your help! Please call and/or write to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and tell them you oppose their charter amendment because it will eliminate county jobs.”
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who has championed the measure, said it is about expanded access to housing, mental health treatment and law enforcement diversion programs, and has pushed back against the idea that it amounts to defunding law enforcement.
“We want a road map for our vision of the `care first, jail last’ system. These are not just words to us. The fear is that they may just be words in a decade to a brand-new board,” Kuehl said last week.
“I do think that it is appropriate to say to the people of Los Angeles County, `would you like this to be a longer-term investment?”’
Kuehl and her co-author, Supervisor Hilda Solis, encountered strong resistance not only from Barger, but from Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai, who warned that the 10% requirement could hamstring future boards, limit flexibility during economic downturns and 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.
Solis argued that the charter amendment would create more good-paying union jobs.
“To say that we’re out to cut jobs right now is simply untrue,” Solis said. “What’s wrong with putting this in front of the voters and having them decide? This is about funding the vision of L.A. County, to reimagine a Los Angeles County that puts care first and jails last.”
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. “I guess they can get a construction job … following your logic.”
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 Employees Union International Local 721 and 14 other unions united as the Coalition of County Unions, which includes ALADS. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO said it would set dangerous precedent and urged the board to withdraw the ballot measure.
The county’s lead counsel, Mary Wickham, was only willing to say on the record that it was an open question whether the amendment would withstand a legal challenge.
Villanueva and Barger both argued that the board is already spending tens of millions of dollars in community resources and alternatives to incarceration, ticking off a list of related spending that Barger said amounted to far more than the 10% threshold.
Villanueva said the measure’s title was deceptive.
“You’re really not saying in the title that you’re going to be defunding law enforcement, prosecutors and the public safety of L.A. County,” Villanueva told the board.
While some proponents of the amendment welcomed that characterization, Kuehl denied that was the goal.
“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. No one is `defunding’ the sheriff’s department. I would call it … `right-sizing,” Kuehl said, noting that the jail population has dropped by nearly 30%.
While the board’s vote may be very nearly a foregone conclusion, it is unclear how voters will respond.
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, Villanueva and even residents, is expected to be released later this week, but not in advance of Tuesday’s meeting.
When addressing the board last week, Villanueva cited a national survey finding 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,” Villanueva 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.
Kuehl said voters are ready for a change, as she pushed back against arguments, including by the Los Angeles Times editorial board, that the process for public input had been rushed and without sufficient study.
“It is only feeling rushed to people who haven’t been paying attention,” Kuehl said. “This is a moment in time when people are saying to us, `Why is every solution wearing a uniform and carrying a weapon … we want something else.””
Tuesday 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.