Citing concerns about skyrocketing salary and pension costs, elected officials from more than a dozen cities across Orange County that contract with the Sheriff’s Department for patrols are starting to ask county supervisors some tough questions in public about their bill.

The answers could change the nature of policing and firefighting in Orange County forever.

In recent years, contract costs for cities that use the Sheriff’s Department as their police force have steadily risen.

“Over the last ten fiscal years, costs charged by the Sheriff have increased on average by 33%, with approximately 26% of the increase occurring in the last five years,” reads a Memorandum of Understanding being considered publicly by contract cities this month.

“The cost of the Sheriff’s Agreement is becoming a greater percentage of the Parties General Fund budgets and threatens the provision of other vital municipal services,” reads the MOU.

The cities, which are seeking an independent audit of how regional law enforcement costs are assessed in Orange County, have chosen Mission Viejo as the lead agency to issue the contract for study.

A total of thirteen cities contract their law enforcement with the department including Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Stanton, Villa Park and Yorba Linda.

The MOU, which cities have until Sept. 15 to approve, sets up a Request for Proposals or RFP  to find an analyst that can independently answer a host of questions about how much it costs the Orange County Sheriff to deploy resources. An RFP is expected to be issued by Sept. 22, according to documents.

There’s even rumblings that this could be the first step in South Orange County cities forming a Joint Powers Authority or JPA – similar to the OC Fire Authority – that can handle regional law enforcement in a more cost effective and financially transparent manner.

County executives and the deputies’ union president are privately applauding the coming audit, saying the contract cities will see they are getting an incredible deal because many large costs, such as SWAT or K9 units, are shared across many customers.

Yet it seems very clear to me that there’s little buy-in politically from contract city leaders for the salary and pension deals agreed to recently by county supervisors that have in turn spiked public safety spending from their general funds without any ability to explain those increases to residents who are watching other community programs get squeezed.

And in many cases, the cities in question, like Mission Viejo, are often rated as the safest in America.

“I do not remember hearing anytime a county supervisor would come to Mission Viejo and ask for input on the negotiations of the Sheriff’s contract, especially on salary and benefits,” said Mission Viejo Mayor Pro Tem Ed Sachs, adding that his city is the county’s largest contract city.

“We have to have a much better relationship with our county supervisors when it comes time to negotiate contracts with the Sheriff’s Department,” said Sachs, 70, a retired executive with Pioneer Electronics.

“They negotiate but the cities are the ones that pay it,” Sachs said.

Ironically, this same board of supervisors worked with private negotiators, arguing that spending an extra half million dollars on attorneys would pay off instead of having county executives negotiating perks they often shared.

Yet in this case, the pros came back and offered a $13 million deal over the next three years, according to internal documents released through a public records request. When the contract came out of closed session with county supervisors, the cost to taxpayers was $62 million.

Months later, the deputies’ union was instrumental in an independent mail campaign that made a real difference for one incumbent supervisor, Andrew Do, who barely survived his re-election challenge.

Meanwhile, city and county taxpayers are left to confront the costs of not only salary hikes but long-term pension obligations.

Consider the fact that right now, most contract cities could simply walk away from their contracts without having to pay anything toward the pension liabilities created by county supervisors’ deals with public safety unions.

That means if South County decided to create it’s own public safety agency through a joint powers authority, a JPA like the OC Fire Authority, they would not assume any of the pension liabilities associated with the deputies they have contracted in recent years.

Those obligations would stay with the county or the retirement system.

Internal documents obtained by Voice of OC show that officials at the Orange County Employees Retirement System have already considered this legal thorn, in regards to the pension obligations at the OC Fire Authority.

When the OCFA’s General Counsel gave board members a formal opinion in 2014 that OCFA member cities could withdraw from the JPA and avoid sharing in the pension obligations created, it created a stir at the OC Retirement System, prompting an ominous note from the OCERS lawyers to board members.

“If the legal analysis is correct,” read the November 2015 legal memo examined by Voice of OC, “OCERS’ primary obligor for funding the retirement and other benefits owed to firefighters and other employees of the Fire Authority well may be an empty shell with no fiscal wherewithal to support it. Were a critical mass of member agencies to abandon the JPA, OCERS could be left holding an empty promise to fund firefighters’ benefits.”

The OC Fire Authority recently started to insert language tying contract cities, like in the recent case of Santa Ana, to unfunded liabilities for pensions. County officials have yet to address the issue with Sheriff contract cities.

Yet it’s more than pension accounting that Sachs said is needed, from his city’s perspective.

“More and more, it’s just not clear what Mission Viejo gets,” Sachs said.

“We’re going to need a lot more detail and specificity as to what crimes we’re fighting here in South  County because it’s not just Mission Viejo.”

“We’re getting political answers. And we need the truth,” Sachs added.

“We have no voice in this.”

Other than to pay the bill…

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