Police subsidy appears doomed

September 12, 2003 

SACRAMENTO -- Concern that a state subsidy for the Modesto Police Department would establish an expensive precedent has doomed legislation this year to help the city pay for the investigation of Laci Peterson's disappearance and homicide.

But with the investigation continuing -- and her husband's double-murder trial still months away -- lawmakers say they have time to work on the issue and will try again next year.

The high-profile case carries a high price tag for city police -- more than $485,000 in extra costs so far, according to Police Department officials. The figure could top $750,000 by the end of the trial, they predicted.

Laci Peterson, 27 and eight months pregnant, was reported missing on Christmas Eve. Her body and that of her unborn son, Conner, washed ashore in San Francisco Bay in mid-April.

Scott Peterson, a 30-year-old fertilizer salesman, is accused of double murder.

A team of legislators serving the Northern San Joaquin Valley, headed by Assemblyman Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, wanted to tap into a decades-old funding stream that normally helps smaller, rural counties pay for expensive murder investigations and trials.

But only counties can use the money, not cities.

Cogdill and city officials argued that the rule was arbitrary and that the city should qualify for state aid because its Police Department was the lead agency in the investigation.

Last week, Cogdill tacked the Modesto subsidy onto an unrelated bill that was quickly moving through the Legislature.

The California Police Chiefs Association and the League of California Cities threw their support -- and their lobbyists -- behind the bill.

The measure survived its first test a few days later in the Assembly Local Government Committee.

The measure went to the Assembly Appropriations Committee this week. Chairman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, took issue with the bill -- which meant that the legislation stood little chance of clearing the committee, let alone the full Assembly and Senate, before tonight's deadline to send bills to the governor.

"We've just run out of time," said Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden, who was in Sacramento on Tuesday to meet with Steinberg and other lawmakers.

Steinberg made it clear that the committee would not vote on the bill this year, the police chief said.

"They've got a lot of other things they've got to get done," Wasden said. "It was more than the plate could hold this session."

A spokesman for Steinberg was uncertain about the bill's status, but Wasden said the holdup centered on expanding the scope of the reimbursement fund to include cities.

Wasden said murder cases have the potential to turn into financial hardships on law enforcement agencies, regardless of whether the crimes occur in city or county jurisdiction.

"You have to follow the case all the way through," Wasden said, "but in the back of your mind is always, 'How do we afford this?'"

Other area lawmakers who signed onto the measure: Sens. Jeff Denhman, R-Salinas, and Chuck Poochigian, R-Fresno, whose districts take in part of Modesto; Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian, a Stockton Republican who represents part of Modesto; and Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy.

Bee capitol bureau reporter Eric Stern can be reached at 916-326-5544 or estern@modbee.com.

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