Trial has San Mateo thinking

01/27/2004 9:35 AM

11/19/2007 2:40 PM

SACRAMENTO -- Now that San Mateo County will host the Scott Peterson trial, county officials want assurances that the state will pay the bill for extra courthouse staff and security.

A change-of-venue subsidy from the state is common for murder cases from smaller or medium-sized counties. But San Mateo officials fear that state money might dry up, and they are pursuing special legislation to guarantee that the state will pick up the unknown tab.

"San Mateo County needs to be made whole," said state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who represents the area.

Peterson is facing double-murder charges for the death of his wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner. Peterson has pleaded not guilty.

The San Mateo effort follows similar set-aside proposals by Stanislaus County and the city of Modesto for the Peterson case. And all of the plans have been met with skepticism from the chairman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, who signs off on spending bills.

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has grown weary of counties raiding a state trial-subsidy fund, which for decades has given prosecutors and sheriffs from smaller communities the resources to put on trial some of the state's most infamous murder cases.

Under the program, smaller counties apply to the state for a reimbursement. As a cost-control measure, the counties also are required to chip in between 10 percent and 20 percent of the total cost.

But the Legislature has been singling out specific cases in the state budget for a guaranteed 100 percent subsidy, maneuvering around the rules.

The fund exploded in the 1990s. By 2005, almost $100 million will have been spent reimbursing counties for murder cases.

"It's not good policy to pick one high-profile case and make it an exception to the rule," Steinberg said Monday.

Steinberg held up a subsidy for the Peterson case last year. But it might be more difficult this year. There can be power in numbers by adding San Mateo-area legislators to the push for state funds for the Peterson case.

Officials want budget to be clear

It's worked before. Subsidies for specific trials were added to the state budget in the 1990s as a way to attract votes from lawmakers from those areas to help pass the overall budget, which requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

Don Peterson, a lobbyist who has helped counties tap into the fund for years, said singling out San Mateo County with special legislation is probably not necessary. But, he adds, "I don't blame them -- they're going to front the money" for the trial.

Under the current system, Stanislaus County could use state funds it receives to pay back the Modesto Police Department for its investigation of Laci Peterson's disappearance and to reimburse San Mateo County for holding the trial.

But with a state funding crunch, Modesto city officials -- and now San Mateo County -- are looking for a stronger guarantee with specific language in the budget.

"We just want to be clear," said Mary McMillan, deputy manager of San Mateo County.

McMillan said her county has tried unsuccessfully for years to get the state to reimburse it $3.5 million in legal bills from the "Billionaire Boys Club" trial from a 1984 murder. And they're afraid they'll get stuck with the bill for the Peterson case.

"We've never had good luck with the state," said Jerry Hill, a San Mateo County supervisor. "We trust the county of Stanislaus to pay their bills, but we don't trust the state of California to be forthcoming and do the right thing."

The total cost of the case is far from being calculated, but it will be costly. For example, the trial cost to Stanislaus County will be an estimated $375,000, court Executive Officer Michael Tozzi said. That doesn't include the cost to the district attorney's office or the police and sheriff's departments.

One potential financial issue: Stanislaus County would get reimbursed for expert witnesses, investigators and others at the rates it usually pays for that help in low-profile cases.

But Michael Corbett, a lobbyist for San Mateo County, questions who would make up the difference if the cost for courthouse security in the Central Valley, for example, is lower than what it actually costs to guard the courthouse in San Mateo County, on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, who is handling the Peterson reimbursement effort, said he's not opposed to adding San Mateo County into the mix if it's needed.

He said he wants to make sure that Modesto and Stanislaus County budgets are protected.

"It shouldn't bankrupt San Mateo, either," he said.

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

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