Tobacco Funds Spending Disputed
A mental health official urged the Ventura County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to clear up confusion about the role a voluntary committee will play in deciding how to distribute $23 million in tobacco settlement funds.
Neal Andrews, president of the county Mental Health Board, told supervisors he was "stunned by the confusion evident" at a Monday night meeting of the tobacco advisory committee.
At that meeting, County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston urged the 11-member board to stick close to a spending plan approved by supervisors for the first year's $9-million distribution.
That plan, approved last fall, would give 60% of the money to health programs run by county government, 22% to private doctors and hospitals and the rest to nonprofit groups.
But committee members said they believed they were supposed to decide how the money should be divided--and that their decision might differ a lot from what supervisors have in mind.
The advisory group was formed in response to a November voter initiative that would have shifted control of the tobacco money from the Board of Supervisors to private hospitals. Although backers of Measure O spent $2.7 million, the measure was defeated in a hard-fought campaign led by citizen activists--some of whom are now members of the committee.
Andrews asked the board to respect the advisory committee's belief that it should be making the funding decisions.
"I understand there is increasing pressure to do something to spend this money," he said. "But the voters of Ventura County did not defeat Measure O simply to have these funds distributed in an equally thoughtless and politicized manner."
Supervisors did not immediately respond to Andrews' comments. Supervisor John Flynn, reached later, agreed there is a need to get money out to needed health programs. But he declined further comment until he talks to the advisory committee's chairman.
Other supervisors could not be reached for comment.
At Monday's meeting, Johnston said he would return to the advisory committee with his recommendations on how the money should be divided. Some committee members said they are frustrated that they have spent three months hearing presentations by health groups who want the money.
"All of this seems totally a waste of time," said Nancy Borchard. "Apparently the needs have already been decided."
The money comes from the county's participation in a states' lawsuit against major tobacco companies. The county's share is about $250 million over 25 years. The county has received $23 million so far but plans to keep $15 million in reserve.