Sacramento County proposal would use vital records fee to fund domestic violence programs

A domestic violence counselor and policewoman in Citrus Heights look at a dispatch center board. A proposed bill in the Legislature would let Sacramento County increase fees on documents, with the funds financing family justice centers that aid victims of domestic violence.
A domestic violence counselor and policewoman in Citrus Heights look at a dispatch center board. A proposed bill in the Legislature would let Sacramento County increase fees on documents, with the funds financing family justice centers that aid victims of domestic violence. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento County leaders want to increase fees on marriage, birth and death documents to fund domestic violence programs, pointing to more than 21,000 crisis calls made each year to three local shelter programs.

The Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday whether to co-sponsor state legislation with the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office that would establish the “Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking Act.” The bill would authorize the county to impose a new fee initially capped at $4 on certified copies of vital records as early as 2016, with funds earmarked for coordinating nonprofit and public agencies that address domestic violence.

Hope Thrives Here, an organization chaired by former Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, has been instrumental in the creation of the proposal. Hope Thrives Here is dedicated to creating a Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center, envisioned as a one-stop facility for victims of domestic violence to receive help.

Current fees on certified copies of records are $28 for a birth record, $21 for a death record and $15 for a marriage certificate. In fiscal year 2013-2014, the county issued 135,827 birth and death records and marriage certificates, according to the proposal.

Natasha Karl, governmental relations and legislative officer for Sacramento County, said the Board of Supervisors would have final discretion over which organizations receive the funding. But Paul Durenberger, project manager for Hope Thrives Here and an assistant chief in the DA’s Office, hopes about half of the raised funds would be diverted to the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center to ensure the sustainability of the program.

The center is scheduled to open this year before the bill would come into effect, so the money from vital record fees would be for a steady stream of funding down the line, Durenberger said. Startup money for the center is coming from other sources, including private donations and the city of Sacramento.

“We’ve really been able to bring together community groups that haven’t worked with county agencies before,” Durenberger said. “We’ve started a good process that I think will help victims,” regardless of whether this proposal passes.

Other community organizations dedicated to domestic violence prevention also stand to receive funds at the discretion of the Board of Supervisors.

Durenberger said he is not aware of opposition to this proposal. But taxpayer groups in the past have opposed similar bills in the Capitol, arguing that such county charges are taxes and do not meet the strict definition of fees. A tax would require two-thirds approval from voters, compared to the legislative authorization and Board of Supervisors approval needed for a domestic violence fee.

Jon Coupal, the president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said his organization has opposed bills for fees like this in the past “because it’s not proposed as a tax, it’s proposed as a fee.”

“The purpose of the fee is unrelated to the revenue source, which is a clear violation of Proposition 13,” he said.

Kimberly Cramer, a Sacramento resident, said that she finds the proposal “kind of odd” because she thinks raising the fees on vital records would make it harder for women who are trying to get out of domestic violence situations to get copies of documents they might need for a legal fight.

“Wouldn’t that place a higher burden on women trying to get out of situations like that?” she asked. Cramer and her husband, Ryan, were picking up a certified copy of their daughter’s birth certificate.

Ryan Cramer said he’d be willing to pay a fee for domestic violence programs if it was charged on something other than records that victims may need to obtain.

County spokeswoman Chris Andis said that the office doesn’t ask why individuals need copies of vital records, so there is no way to tell how many people might get copies for the situations Cramer suggested.

Andis said the county clerk/recorder doesn’t get many comments from people on the current costs of records.

Miguel Travor said he would be willing to pay a small increase to combat domestic violence. He was getting a document recorded at the clerk/recorder’s office on Tuesday.

“Maybe a little bit would be OK,” Travor said.

The family justice center model was originally formed in San Diego in 2002. As of 2013, there were 17 such centers in California and six additional centers in development, according to the Family Justice Center Alliance. A family justice center acts as a single access point for a domestic violence victim to get critical services, including law enforcement support, legal aid and counseling, rather than requiring a victim to visit a bunch of different agencies and locations in order to be protected.

In the past 10 years, five other counties have been authorized, on a pilot basis, by the Legislature to adopt fees on vital records to fund domestic violence prevention. The programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, as well as a program in Berkeley, were made permanent after the Legislature reviewed progress reports. The proposal before the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors was written based on the Alameda County proposal. However, all of the money from the Alameda County fees goes to its family justice center, Durenberger said.

Call The Bee’s Ellen Garrison at (916) 321-1006