Wednesday, May 22, 2002
Cooley Asks for Extra $10 Million for Specialized Prosecution Units
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
District Attorney Steve Cooley yesterday asked the county Board of Supervisors for an additional $10 million in his budget to provide funding for the District Attorney Response Team, which sends prosecutors to the scene of police shootings, and to keep several specialized prosecution units, which face elimination in the proposed budget.
In a brief presentation to the board, Cooley called the additional money “a mere ripple,” but promised the supervisors the money would help preserve his office’s Sex Crimes Division, Environmental Crimes Division and the Elder Abuse Section at a time his office is facing an $8.4 million shortfall.
The additional $10 million would also provide full funding for the Justice System Integrity Division, which investigates and prosecutes attorneys, judges, and police officers involved in criminal misconduct or abuse, and partially fund the Organized Crime Division.
“There are some things only the District Attorney’s Office can do,” Cooley said. We can’t do them without adequate funding.”
The county needs to chip in some of that funding, Cooley said, because other money sources, including the state, are facing their own budget crunches. The District Attorney’s Office is facing its first budget cuts since the 1993-94 fiscal year. The county proposes to contribute $115 million to Cooley’s $240.4 million budget next year, with the rest coming from state and federal grants.
“We see revenues being eliminated at the federal and state levels,” Cooley said. Gov. Gray Davis’ May revise of his budget included severe cuts for the specialized prosecution units of all California district attorneys.
The District Attorney’s Office has never fully recovered from the recession of the early 1990’s and, as a result, lacks the flexibility to respond to public concerns, Cooley said.
Over the last 10 years, nearly 400 full-time positions have been cut and replaced with just 25, he said.
The staffing problems of the District Attorney’s Office were exacerbated by court unification in January 2000, which combined all of the county’s municipal and superior Courts into one unified Los Angeles Superior Court system, and by the passage of Proposition 36 by California voters in 2000, which certain defendants charged with small drug offenses the opportunity to choose drug treatment rather than jail time, Cooley told the board.
There are now 230 courtrooms that must be staffed by 501 attorneys, which means that they have “to rush from one courtroom to another to cover their caseloads,” he commented.
The District Attorney’s Office has been paying for the roll-out team out of its own funds after being turned down by the board last year for funding.
Former District Attorney Gil Garcetti created the program in 1980, but disbanded it in 1996 during that year’s budget crunch. The roll-out team was then resurrected in February 2000 by Garcetti in the wake of the LAPD’s Rampart scandal and in the midst of criticism by then-opponent Cooley, who made the reinstatement of the unit a major campaign theme.
The roll-out team also responds when someone has died or has been injured in custody, but only at the request of the law enforcement agency in question.
Cooley also complained to the board that his office is actually losing money designated for public safety by Proposition 172 because the board is taking general fund money away from the office to compensate.
“Every time Prop. 172 money comes in nearly the same amount of money goes out of general fund money,” he said.
When California voters approved the permanent half-cent sales tax increase in 1993, they were not aware that the county would be taking general fund money out of department budgets, Cooley said.
Prop. 172 funds during the current year make up 33 percent of the gross appropriation for the District Attorney’s Office, while money from the county’s general fund provides 43 percent. But Cooley said the general fund used to make up a greater percentage of the office’s budget, making up 83 percent of the gross appropriation in fiscal year 1990-1991.
But county Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen said Prop. 172 was intended to partially offset local property taxes which have been taken by the state, resulting in a $900 million loss for Los Angeles County.
“It is to replace local property taxes,” he said.
Janssen called Cooley’s figure “interesting” and said that all the Prop. 172 money is being put into public safety, in addition to millions from the general fund.
“It’s a lot more complicated than that,” Janssen said, adding that it is difficult to examine budget numbers piecemeal without looking at the size of the general fund, the growth of the department, and other factors.
Cooley also asked the board to order the director of the county’s Department of Public Social Services to restore the Welfare Fraud Investigation and Prosecution Programs, which have been slashed drastically.
Janssen pointed out that Cooley still has 41 positions and $5.7 million allocated to his Welfare Fraud Division.
“You can’t have two District Attorney investigators and one-eighth of a DA going out there and solving these cases,” Cooley replied.
Cooley also urged the board to allow his office the flexibility to pursue fraud cases, noting that $3.2 million was recovered from prosecuting a single corporate vendor, more than the entire enforcement program costs to run.
“We know there is more out there,” Cooley said.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company