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Posted: 9/28/2004 12:09:27 PM EDT
[Last Edit: 9/28/2004 1:37:26 PM EDT by nightstalker]
Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Firefighters, deputies tangling over tax funds
Ballot campaign could be bitter, with voters asked to choose sides. Issue likely to be set for 2006 ballot today.

The Orange County Register

The public fight everyone wanted to avoid starts today.

Firefighters and sheriff's deputies are facing off in an unprecedented ballot campaign that will force voters to choose which side gets $30 million a year in tax money. Resentment between the two sides already runs so deep that police and firefighters have nearly come to blows over it, and each side is accusing the other of stealing.

{red]" 'Stealing' is a strong word, and I will use it repeatedly," said Bob MacLeod, a union leader with the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

At issue is the distribution of a decade-old sales tax earmarked by Proposition 172 that has produced more than $20 billion across the state, aimed at beefing up public safety. Since its passage, most counties and cities across the state have primarily used their 172 funds for police, prosecutors and jails.

The measure passed in the wake of the devastating Laguna and Malibu fires in 1993. Firefighters say law enforcement used their images and their help in canvassing neighborhoods to help pass Prop. 172, then stiffed them on the proceeds.

"We've been played for a fool," said Joe Kerr, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association.

After years of unsuccessful private negotiations, the Orange County Fire Authority – which serves nearly half of the county's residents – is ready to take its argument to the ballot box. It wants voters to force the county to give firefighters up to 10 percent of future proceeds from the sales tax.

Yet, with the county budget stretched thin, fire needs conflict directly with those of law enforcement. And county officials say there's no wiggle room to make both happy.

Earlier this year a shouting match between sheriff and firefighter union leaders outside a Fire Authority board meeting in Santa Ana nearly turned to fisticuffs when 100 deputies showed up, according to Mac Leod and Kerr. Each one points the finger at the other as to who pushed the confrontation.

Kerr said sheriff's union officials also implied that firefighters would be targeted for tickets.

MacLeod said the accusation was "an outright lie," adding that the firefighters are the only ones threatening people, by holding a ballot initiative over the heads of most elected officials in the hopes that voters like them better than cops.

The initiative doesn't just pit police and firefighters against each other. Candidates for county offices in 2006 – sheriff, district attorney and supervisor seats – could be forced to choose sides in the debate, particularly if they want coveted endorsements from the unions.

"It's going to be a battle between firefighters and law enforcement, and I don't think it's healthy for the community. No one is looking forward to this," said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, a former chairman of the Fire Authority as well as a policeman and deputy district attorney. "It's going to be very difficult for elected officials if they're going to be forced to choose between three very critical public safety groups."

Today, county supervisors – who oppose splitting the funds – are all but certain to put the initiative on the 2006 ballot because firefighters have gathered the required signatures.

The battle in Orange County is likely to draw a statewide audience as strapped fire departments from San Diego to Fremont consider the ballot option to get more funding.

In Santa Barbara, firefighters recently avoided a ballot campaign when supervisors agreed to hand over up to 10 percent of the Prop. 172 funds to county fire services. There, both sides were gearing up for a tense debate.

"Guys don't want to butt heads with cops," said Eric Peterson, president of the Santa Barbara Firefighters Association, which represents 200 firefighters working at the county Fire Department.

"We have a really strong brotherhood with them. They see all the nasty stuff we see and you naturally bond with people like that," he said.

But despite the bonds, tempers flare when you reach into each other's pocketbooks. Peterson said there were isolated incidents where tense words were exchanged.

Orange County officials defend their current allocation of the Prop. 172 funds – 80 percent to the sheriff and 20 percent to the District Attorney's Office – by pointing out that the money was always intended to replace property taxes lost when the state shifted those funds to education. They argue that the sheriff and district attorney are regional while the Fire Authority serves only 43 percent of county residents. Twelve out of the county's 34 cities operate their own fire departments.

A county staff report estimates that the firefighters' demand would cost $30 million annually, which would likely be taken out of the sheriff's and district attorney's budget.

With the state already taking another $28 million in the next two years from county coffers, officials argue that any money lost to firefighters would force service cuts in the Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office.

The sheriff's union says it is so concerned about that prospect that officials have increased members' dues by 50 percent to fund their campaign against the firefighters.

Kerr, of the firefighters associa tion, accuses sheriff's union officials of using the 172 issue as a ruse "to get money for other political fights totally unrelated to the firefighter issue."

The two unions have never been close, especially since Kerr's group backed Sheriff Mike Carona in 1998 and the deputies union backed Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters. While leaders on both sides say their troops will remain professional in front of the public, the explosive nature of the debate likely will be hard to conceal.

"There's a chance there will be a lot of damage," MacLeod said, "depending on how both sides conduct themselves."
Link Posted: 9/28/2004 12:23:37 PM EDT
I bet that if a cops house burns the FD shows up late too.
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