Supervisor Calls $87.3M in Funding for Children’s Programs a ‘Rip-Off’

By Elizabeth Marcellino City News Service

The Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved $87.3 million in programs to fight childhood obesity, provide insurance coverage for children and offer substance abuse treatment to their parents, but the source of funding remains uncertain because one supervisor—calling the plan a rip-
off—voted against it.

The $87.3 million in funding for the county was approved by the First 5 LA Commission on July 12, part of a new strategy to quickly put $380 million to work. First 5—created to use tobacco tax revenues to fund health, safety and education programs for young children—has come under fire from state lawmakers, an independent audit firm and county officials for under-spending hundreds of millions in funding during a time of critical need.

“The new spending plan follows two years of funding threats, a court battle and an audit that criticized the agency for under-spending resources and delaying program implementation,” according to a statement by First 5 LA announcing the new strategy.

But Supervisor Gloria Molina Tuesday called the transfer of $87.3 million from First 5 LA to the county’s health and mental health departments a “rip-off,” saying it amounted to “the stealing of money from the mouths of babes.”

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who chairs the First 5 LA Commission, praised the plan when it was first approved.

“First 5 LA is stepping up to make a significant different for our youngest children,” he said. “Los Angeles County kids need these health, dental, vision and other services.”

But Molina implied that the programs were hurriedly devised to shift the money from First 5 LA to the county’s sole control.

“You’re giving $87 million to (the Department of Public Health and Department of Mental Health) to supposedly spend on these programs that are not yet completely defined,” Molina said.

County Deputy CEO Sheila Shima said the money was set to be transferred into a county special fund in order to streamline administrative processes and publicly track the dollars as part of the county’s budget.

Molina spokeswoman Roxane Marquez said the supervisor viewed moving the money into the county’s hands as just one in a series of steps weakening First 5’s autonomy.

A 2011 state law that sought to take back $1 billion in First 5 funding statewide was later invalidated by the courts. But when an independent audit found First 5 LA slow to implement programs—despite a reserve of roughly $400 million—and lacking in financial and administrative controls, the Board of Supervisors considered making it a county agency.

Evelyn Martinez, First 5 LA’s CEO at the time, resigned after the audit and the county ultimately settled for imposing additional controls. The agency is now run by interim CEO Craig Steele, formerly First 5’s attorney.

Four votes were required to accept the money, but Molina dissented and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas abstained. Yaroslavsky, who also chairs the board, then moved for approval of the agreement itself—which required only 3 votes—leaving the transfer of cash as a separate matter to be handled later.

The agreement was approved in a 3-1 vote, with Molina still dissenting.

“Somebody’s got to stand up when you castigate an entire group of bureaucrats as rip-off artists, which is not fair, it’s not right,” Yaroslavsky said.

He said some of the programs have been in place since 2010, when Molina chaired the First 5 LA Commission.

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August 2, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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