Police Bear the Brunt of Costa Mesa Budget Ax

The Costa Mesa Civic Center. (Photo credit: City of Costa Mesa)

The Costa Mesa Civic Center. (Photo credit: City of Costa Mesa)

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The Costa Mesa City Council early Wednesday morning passed a $115-million budget for 2011-2012 that includes $6 million in cuts but no specifics on how many city workers would be laid off this year.

The council majority swung the budget ax hardest at public safety, with $1.2 million in cuts to the police budget and a restructuring plan that could reduce the number of sworn officers from 139 to 125.

The council will vote in the fall on its outsourcing plan, which could result in the layoffs of more than 200 employees. The outsourcing plan has drawn heavy fire from union groups and become a nationwide example of ideological city budgeting.

The votes on the restructuring plan and overall budget were 4-1. The only dissenting votes were cast by Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who for months has sharply criticized her colleagues for their outsourcing plan.

With its budget, which was not passed until Wednesday’s early morning hours, the council majority did what for decades has been politically unthinkable at the local level: aggressively pushing for street repairs, storm drains and contingency reserves ahead of public safety.

Costa Mesa CEO Tom Hatch told the packed chambers that the adjustments to the police budget, which came on the heels of nearly $2 million in cuts to the city’s police helicopter program, were the result of a consultant’s study.

The aim, Hatch said, was “to make the best darn police department we can make.” He admitted, however, that “it is a reduction in service.”

Hatch said the city has 139 sworn officers, and the 2011-2012 budget would leave 131 authorized positions. From there, he said, retirements would reduce sworn officers to 125 positions funded through the general fund.

“We’re hoping there are no layoffs,” he said.

Yet police association officials said Tuesday night’s action would likely cause 10 officers to lose their jobs, because several layoffs of lieutenants and sergeants would likely trigger promotions that would affect the numbers on patrol.

Leece led a large contingent of public speakers who said any cuts in police spending would damage the community. “By reducing the numbers, we’re going to leave ourselves vulnerable to crime to happen,” Leece said.

Councilman Jim Righeimer, who has led the push for the outsourcing, denied the council was skimping on public safety.

“There’s not a change. It’s a phenomenal job by CEO Hatch,” Righeimer said, adding that the city was not laying off too many officers. “We’re talking about 3.5 percent in the budget; 3.5 percent and the world is going to cave?”

If anything, Righeimer said, the city was adding reserve officers to boost the department’s effectiveness. Yet he took aim at the department in a way rarely seen from a city council dais.

“The chief and the police department work for the city,” he said. “When it comes to budget and dollars, the buck stops here.”

Righeimer’s words came a day after the city’s interim police chief, Steve Staveley, resigned in protest, calling the council majority corrupt and inept. City officials fired back at Staveley, saying his allegations of corruption were baseless and even libelous.

Dieter Dammeier, an attorney for the Costa Mesa Police Association, criticized the council for allowing the number of sworn officers to shrink from 164 to 140 in recent years. Allowing the ranks to thin to 125 officers was inconceivable, he argued.

“We all talk about the thin blue line. You guys want to make it thinner,” he said.

Dannemier also warned council members: “You keep cutting cops, you’re going to increase crime.”

He said their rhetoric was balancing the budget in real time because “in the last six weeks alone, you’ve had five officers leave.

“You’ve spent millions to train these officers, and you want to send them to other cities.”

Righeimer said the police department had little credibility because “when we let the department take care of who they want, you get what you get: things didn’t change. We had a chief who wasn’t even here,” Righeimer said, referring to former chief Chris Shawkey, who was essentially fired for working from his desert home too often.

Numerous community residents implored council members to avoid cuts to public safety, saying it would seriously affect the quality of life in Costa Mesa. Others talked about how the police department had cooperated with the city in terms of pay cuts and furloughs.

That drew the ire of Councilman Eric Bever.

“I’m getting really tired of the revisionist history,” Bever said. In 2009 police union officials “made us wait until October before you would sit down, waiting until we had audited financials,” he said.

That didn’t help city officials, who were spending $35 million in reserves to maintain the level of policing, Bever said. “We lost 10 months of savings waiting for those [concessions] to happen,” he said.

Planning Commssioner Jim Fitzpatrick also defended the council’s action, telling the public there was an important factor to keep in mind when police criticize the council majority.

“Our Costa Mesa public safety union spent $100,000 trying not to elect one individual [Jim Righeimer],” he said. The union campaign was very negative, he added.

“Let’s just remember what our public safety people have done,” Fitzpatrick said.

When Jason Chamness, president of the Costa Mesa Police Association, returned to the podium in the wee hours of the morning, he was so stunned by the debate that he stood there saying there was nothing to add.

“They spoke volumes,” he said.

Please contact Norberto Santana, Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosantana. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.


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