Thursday, October 23, 2008

Contra Costa not spending much of special tax for extra police service

Contra Costa County has accumulated millions of dollars using a special tax meant to improve local police services without paying for a single additional deputy sheriff in the past 16 years.

Welcome to the frustrating world of the P-6 zone funds, which were meant to enhance police services in areas paying for them. At a time when the sheriff's office has nearly 100 positions unfilled because of deep budget cuts, taxpayers, politicians and the sheriff are desperately seeking to open a locked cash box.

The big obstacle? P-6 zones must use their tax revenue to benefit the area taxed, yet many of the county's more than 100 zones are too small to raise enough money to support even one deputy and the county has no way to return a benefit to the source of the money.

The sheriff wants to start spending the money — he has asked for four deputies — but must wait for the county counsel's opinion on the legality of using the P-6 money. That opinion is expected soon.

Of the $5.5 million raised since 1992, the county counsel permitted the sheriff to spend $2 million on the county's two helicopters. That disconcerted some Discovery Bay residents who live in an East County community that long ago lost its resident deputy and for more than a decade has sought more police presence. It will pay just more than $500,000 this fiscal year into its P-6 fund.

As residents, elected leaders and others exchange memos, letters and e-mails, and Advertisementpolitics creep into play, the money sits unused.

"There's legitimate frustration on many parts," Sheriff Warren Rupf said. "I've told many people, government can only move at glacial speed ... but I'm optimistic we can make some progress."

Supervisors established the overall County Service Area P-6 in 1983 to provide "extended police protection services" to all residents of unincorporated Contra Costa. The ad valorem tax, which adjusts based on property assessments, raised $4.6 million last fiscal year and pays for a couple dozen deputies. The county also has a range of lesser police protection districts, each with a level of police services.

In 1992, the supervisors required that new residential tracts in unincorporated areas set up P-6 zones. Each single family zone home pays about $200 a year, with an annual consumer price index adjustment.

The county counsel warned then that the ordinance would restrict expenditures to the individual zones. In 1998, the board tried to ease the restrictions by pooling the revenue, yet the legal stumbling block remained.

Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond is confident the sheriff will soon have the needed P-6 zone flexibility.

"Return to source doesn't mean it can only be spent on the street it was paid," he said.

That's the problem for Rupf: "People are paying money for a particular service and we need to reconcile that."

Rupf says he will not touch the fund until he gets a legal blessing.

The zone funds had not drawn attention until the past couple of years when revenue reached a usable level. Due mostly to a burgeoning East County population, revenue nearly tripled last year, totaling almost $1.5 million from 5,322 parcels.

The county would like to pool the revenue of 110 P-6 zones to provide regional police services. But blending can be tricky.

In August, the sheriff proposed paying for deputies and patrol cars in Discovery Bay, Rodeo, El Sobrante and Bay Point, two crime prevention specialists and a Discovery Bay surveillance camera project. He asked for $1.2 million from the P-6 zone fund.

The idea irked some Discovery Bay residents. The East County community will pay about $548,000 into P-6 zones this fiscal year, about half the annual countywide total.

"We have a viable annual source of funds for additional services ... and we are the lion's share contributor to that fund," said Discovery Bay resident Bob Mankin. "So in my simple, common-sense thinking, we should get the lion's share of services returned from those funds."

The $226 item is the third highest charge on his property tax bill, he said.

Supervisor Mary Piepho, a 15-year resident of Discovery Bay, has lobbied for increased police presence for years.

"I will continue my push to have our communities who are paying such a significant amount of money (such as Discovery Bay) see that revenue coming back to serve their community," she wrote in an e-mail.

Rupf, who has had political differences with Piepho, said his idea was meant to spur some action. His plan to spend the money in four different areas of the county had a political component.

"Quite frankly, you need three votes to get it out of the board," he said, acknowledging the need to spread the money widely over the county's supervisoral districts.

Controversy has also swirled around the sheriff pulling $200,000 annually from the zone funds to help pay for his agency's two helicopters.

"It's a concern that somebody found a loophole to raid the funds without asking the residents," Mankin said.

The sheriff said the helicopters help in patrolling outlying areas such as Discovery Bay.

Mankin said he hopes that the sheriff meets with residents from affected communities before a final allocation is approved.

"Discovery Bay has gone from a weekend resort community to a bedroom community and we've had those growing pains," he said. "Let's get out in front of it."

Danville's Blackhawk subdivision is an example of how a well funded police assessment district can work.

Residents formed Blackhawk's P-2A Zone, which pays for a lieutenant and two deputies. That zone differs from a P-6 because residents specifically asked to pay for a certain number of positions and paid the needed amount of money.

"They started from a service need and built the assessment in the tax around it," Rupf said. "The P-6 zones start with the money and they have to stack the money up to buy something."

Although P-6 zones have proven troublesome, residents in unincorporated East Richmond Heights and North Arlington neighborhoods will vote Nov. 4 on Measure F which would charge $108 per single family residence and $432 per apartment dwelling or commercial store to support a resident deputy.

Supervisor Gioia of Richmond introduced the proposal on behalf of a resident group. The measure's wording will ensure that the neighborhood receives a deputy, he said.

With the sheriff forced to make deep cuts this year, Mankin worries that the P-6 money could backfill those holes rather than boost services in affected areas as promised.

"I think we have to demand it. I think the accountability aspect of this is paramount," Mankin said.

"That's a legitimate concern," the sheriff said.

But, until the return to source legal issue is settled, all sides will have to wait.

"The last thing a sheriff wants to do is violate the law," Rupf said.

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