Sheriffs concerned over phase-out of Special Distribution Fund

County sheriffs around the state say they’re losing millions of dollars they used to receive to offset the impacts of local tribal casinos. Now they’ve begun a campaign to try to get it back.

This comes after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger “blue penciled” $30 million from the Special Distribution Fund in late August. The SDF was created in part to provide money to law enforcement, emergency services and other local needs created when casinos were placed in communities.

A July report by the Bureau of State Audits found that SDF grants suffered from a lack of oversight and coherent standards about how the money could be used. Some counties used money for projects that didn’t appear to be connected to offsetting the impacts of gaming, or took SDF money despite signing separate agreements with local casinos to have them help pay for costs of the additional traffic and medical services. The fund also sends payments to non-gaming tribes to help them pay for services for members.

But sheriffs want the state government to reform the SDF rather than get rid of it. On Dec. 10, Amador County Sheriff-Coroner Martin Ryan sent a letter to his senator, Dave Cox, R-Roseville, asking for “your vigorous support in restoring the SDF monies that are so important to our county and the safety of our citizens.” Ryan said he was part of a larger letter-writing campaign coordinated by lobbyist Nick Warner. Warner represents the California State Sheriffs Association and several other law enforcement associations.

Ryan was quick to say that none of this was intended as a criticism of the tribal casino in his county, the Jackson Rancheria.

“It’s not a tribal issue, it’s a process issue,” Ryan said.

The Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians, which operates the casino in the town of Jackson, negotiated a separate deal to pay the county to help out. Ryan said his deputies are called out to the casino almost twice a day, around 600 times a year. At any given time, suspects arrested in or around the casino occupy three of the 76 beds in the county jail. Neither figure is excessive for a 1,500 slot machine casino, he said.

But he also said that money only partially offsets the impact on the mostly rural area. In other words, he said, even though Amador County was one of those cited in the auditor’s report for getting both SDF funds and direct payments from the tribe, both are needed.

In the three full years from 2005 to 2007, Amador County received $2.1 million in SDF funds. Without this money, he said, the county might have to lose at least one of its 25 deputies. Including salary, benefits and non-car related operating costs, a deputy costs the county around $113,000 a year. But the SDF money goes to several other county agencies as well, including the fire department, the Sutter Creek Police Department, and the City of Jackson.

Supporters of Indian gaming say the current gaming compacts, as well as five new ones negotiated by the governor in 2007, will put billions into state coffers in coming years. When Schwarzenegger blue-penciled the SDF money in August, the Legislature was in a standoff over the state budget, with Republicans lobbying for spending cuts. With the state government facing a $14 billion shortfall — and a special session to address the deficit — such pressures are likely to only get worse.

While the auditor’s report found no illegal activity involved in the spending of SDF funds, it recommended greater oversight and changes in the legal code. Meanwhile, there has been an effort to move money from the SDF to the general fund. Under the new compacts that will face voters next month, payments into the SDF would likely decline by $92 million per year, with payments into the general fund likely to increase by almost twice that amount.

Given these budget pressures, Ryan said, if the money is “folded into the state bureaucracy,” local law enforcement is unlikely to ever see much of it.

“For us, it’s fairly substantial,” Ryan said. “We’re the ones who feel the impact of the traffic and the crime.”

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