Out of business coffers and into homeless hands. Plan would fine businesses violating state codes, then give money to needy. DEBATE IN CALIFORNIA
Los Angeles — A first-of-its-kind initiative appears headed for the California ballot which seeks to raise millions of dollars for the needy by fining businesses that violate health, building, and safety codes. But the measure, aimed at helping the hungry and homeless, is raising the ire of some groups who might have to underwrite the benevolence - namely, landlords, restaurant owners, hotel operators, and grocers.
The outcome of the dispute holds implications beyond the Golden State. Governments and private groups across the country are searching for ways to finance services for the destitute without draining public tills. Thus, any workable idea to emerge is likely to find some duplication.
``People in other states looking for something that will get wide political support will probably look to this as a model,'' says Gary Blasi, vice-president of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Organizers of the ``hunger and homeless'' initiative this week filed 650,000 petition signatures with county registrars across the state. Only 375,000 names are needed to get the measure on the ballot. Proponents hope to bring it before the voters in November.
If it qualifies and is passed, the initiative would create an agency within the California government to coordinate programs for the homeless and those in need of food among state, county, and local governments and nonprofit groups.
It could raise as much as $90 million a year to fund the services, which would include job-training, drug-treatment programs, and expanded mental health care. Revenue bonds would be floated and special savings bonds issued to finance low-income housing.
The group backing the measure, Californians Working Together, which includes many Hollywood and homeless activists, argues that it would be the nation's first ``comprehensive'' program dealing with the homeless.
Proponents say imposing parking-ticket-like fines on health- and building-code violators is a painless way to raise revenue - and would have the added benefit of squeezing slumlords and other unsavory business operators. Currently, code violators are given warnings and told to correct their practices. Only repeated infractions are prosecuted criminally.
Although no one knows for sure how much such a system might raise, advocates claim the sums would be substantial. Last year there were 122,000 code violations cited in Los Angeles County alone. If fines had averaged $200, that would have brought in $25 million.
``It is unique in that it is a comprehensive program, coordinating and building on what is already out there, and it does so without raising taxes,'' says Conway Collis, who is spearheading the drive.
The measure is supported by business, entertainment, civic, and labor leaders, as well as many homeless advocacy and social service groups.
Yet not all homeless activists have heartily endorsed it. Some are skeptical about how much money the initiative will raise, because they don't think inspectors will levy many fines. Others question the idea of some funds being funneled through existing government agencies, which they consider ineffectual in dealing with the homeless problem.
Most of the opposition, though, is coming from business groups that could be the target of the fines. They see it as an unfair attempt to solve a social problem on the backs of a few businesses.
``Homelessness is a very serious problem that all of society should be dealing with, not just a few specified industries,'' says Stanley Kyker of the California Restaurant Association.
Critics argue that the initiative will turn inspectors into ``bounty hunters,'' encouraging them to levy fines for even the most innocuous violations. They contend that at any given time almost any hotel, restaurant, grocery store, or apartment building can be found to be in violation of some code, though proponents say the intent is not to pinch minor offenders.
Yet opponents face a dilemma. They know that fighting such an initiative is like saying you're against motherhood.
``It sounds just great,'' says Don Beaver, president of the California Grocers Association. ``What is this going to make us look like if we try to go out and fight it?''
Instead of a frontal approach, some opponents may support an alternative low-income housing initiative that is expected on the ballot this year.
Yet not all business that would be affected by the hungry and homeless proposition oppose it. Some, such as the California Business Properties Association, are behind it.
The betting at this point is that the measure will pass.