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All 13 cities that contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for their police services have voted to conduct a study to examine and possibly help curb some of the costs.

Mission Viejo Mayor Pro Tem Ed Sachs said last week the study could lead to the creation of a regional police force, even though that possibility isn’t in the draft scope of work for the study.

Dana Point, Laguna Woods, Laguna Niguel and Aliso Viejo were the final cities to sign a memo this week circulating among the 13 municipalities that contract with the Sheriff. 

Since contracting with the Sheriff’s Department for police services is costing nearly 35 percent of Dana Point’s general budget, Mayor Pro Tem Paul Wyatt said it’s time for the contract cities to put pressure on the department by signing the memo.  

“We have to start looking … seems like we will get the most cooperation of the Sheriff’s department … when essentially all of their customers are onboard the study. It seems like this is the right move,” Wyatt said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.  

“That’s when you think the Sheriff will sit down (with the cities),” Wyatt said in a brief interview after the meeting, when the council unanimously voted to join the study. 

Wyatt said it’s too early to say if a regional police force is needed or not.

The 13 cities are: Mission Viejo, Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Stanton, Villa Park and Yorba Linda.

Mission Viejo is the lead city heading up the proposed study that will look at potential command consolidation, like sharing lieutenants and sergeants; consolidating human resources, accounting and purchasing units to reduce administrative costs; having a county-wide split on substation costs versus a regional split. The city is slated to vote Sept. 26 to send the cost study out to bid.

The cities also are concerned about helicopter charges and the cost if it is responding to other law enforcement agencies or fire emergencies.

“There’s a lot of other things that we don’t use on a daily basis,” like the gang unit and SWAT, said Laguna Niguel Councilman Jerry Slusiewicz. “Maybe there’s some savings associated with that.”

Laguna Niguel Mayor Fred Minagar echoed Slusiewicz’ concerns Tuesday night.

“They (the cities) are saying that we want to know the costs, even though we’re not getting charged directly for the K-9, the SWAT,” Minagar said. “I do believe we have fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers … like other cities. So this reality check, I think, is needed.”

Laguna Niguel spends about a third of its annual budget on the Sheriff’s department contract.

“Our concern is all about the rising cost of law enforcement,” Aliso Viejo City Manager David Doyle said during Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Despite what Sachs said last week, Doyle said the study is not about the 13 cities breaking away from the Sheriff’s department. There would have to be another study for that, Doyle said after Wednesday’s meeting.

According to the memo signed by the 13 cities, Sheriff’s contract costs have risen nearly 33 percent over the past 10 years, with 26 percent of the increase occurring during the past five years.  

“Basically this is the first step because we need information to be able to start talking and negotiating and finding out why these costs are rising,” Dana Point Mayor Debra Lewis said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Cities feel that it’s just not sustainable.”

Laguna Woods is hit even harder, with nearly half of its general budget spent on the Sheriff’s contract. 

“Our law enforcement cost is the single largest expenditure in the operating budget,” City Manager Christopher Macon told the Laguna Woods council. 

Macon said he and the 12 other city managers have been discussing and determining the scope of work that will be done in the study.  

At the current rate, Macon told the council, next year’s Sheriff’s contract will be at least 50 percent of the city’s budget. 

The city’s budget for 2017-2018 is just over $5.3 million, with $2.6 million allocated for the Sheriff’s contract.  

“The single greatest threat to the solvency of the City remains the rising cost of law enforcement services, exacerbated by operational changes within the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and labor agreements approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors,” reads Macon’s cover letter to the current budget.

Macon continued, “future costs are expected to continue to increase at an unsustainable rate … the existing level of service will increase at least 15 percent over the next four years.” 

Census data shows that nearly 90 percent of the roughly 16,000 people who live in Laguna Woods are over 60. Earlier in the meeting, South County Outreach — a homeless and hunger relief group — representative Mikelle Daily told the council the the fixed-income elderly in the area need basics, like food and clothing, but didn’t ask for funding because she said the city doesn’t have the budget for it. The organization has a food pantry for the community and also offers rental assistance.

Following Laguna Woods’ Wednesday afternoon vote, Aliso Viejo unanimously jumped on board the study Wednesday night.

Aliso Viejo’s current contract with the Sheriff is $8.4 million, reflecting a $600,000 increase over last year’s contract.

According to the city staff report, nearly half of Aliso Viejo’s budget goes to the Sheriff’s department. Like Laguna Woods, Aliso Viejo projects Sheriff’s spending could account for over 55 percent of its budget without any increase in service. 

“Looking at the cost numbers, versus our city income numbers, what’s happening … has become almost unsustainable in the long run,” Aliso Viejo Councilman Mike Munzing said Wednesday night.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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