A contractor hired by 13 Orange County cities will begin a study in the next few weeks of costs the county Sheriff’s Department charges the cities and the services they receive after cities complained law enforcement expenses ate up as much as 50 percent of their annual budgets.

Currently, the cities have no say in how much they must pay the Sheriff’s Department. The contracts are negotiated and approved by the county Board of Supervisors with no input from the cities.

The 13 City Councils raised concerns over the Sheriff’s increasing contract costs and voiced a desire to have a seat at the bargaining table during negotiations between the County and the Sheriff’s Department. Mission Viejo is the lead agency tasked with hiring a consultant and overseeing the study.

The contract costs have increased nearly 33 percent in the last 10 years, with 23 percent of that increase occurring in the last five years, according to a memo that was circulating among the cities until late September. Many city leaders said the cost increases, along with flattening or even dwindling revenues, are unsustainable. Others said the study could be a bargaining chip for the cities.

“It is a process that will involve all the cities but we’re handling the award of the contract and all the various administrative responsibilities,” Mission Viejo City Manager Dennis Wilberg said during the Nov. 28 council meeting.  

The council unanimously voted to award the $269,500 contract to San Francisco-based Matrix Consulting Group. The 13 cities that will split the cost include: 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.

The study will look into cost-sharing programs for services like the Sheriff’s helicopter and certain personnel, such as investigators and drug enforcement units.

Furthermore, the group will explore possibilities of a unified contract model between cities, like cities signing a contract together for police services, in addition to consolidated Sheriff’s human resources and administrative services in an attempt to reduce overhead costs in the region.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors at its June 27 meeting approved a one-year contract between Mission Viejo and the Sheriff’s Department that hit the city with a nearly $700,000 increase in the annual contract for a total of just over $19 million for police services.

Under the current contract, there are at least 63 Sheriff’s personnel working in the city. The number includes one lieutenant, five sergeants, four investigators and 39 deputies. The city is paying $15.6 million for those employees.

The cost of one patrol deputy is $256,189, according to the contract.

Additionally, the city is paying another $609,000 for at least 17 “regional/shared staff,” which brings the cost to $16.3 million for Sheriff personnel.

The city is also paying another $2.7 million in “total other charges and credits” for services like “premium pay for bilingual staff; contract administration; data line charges; direct services and supplies; enhanced helicopter response services … holiday pay; Integrated Law & Justice of Orange County Fees…” according to contract documents.  Unlike the personnel section, the charges and credits aren’t broken down by line item.

It all brings the total to just over $19 million. The city has a budget of $66.8 million for 2017-2018.

Small cities like Laguna Woods are hit even harder, spending nearly half of its budget on the Sheriff’s contract.

“The single greatest threat to the solvency of [Laguna Woods] 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 City Manager Christopher Macon’s 2017-2018 budget cover letter.

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.”

Another small city, Aliso Viejo, also spends nearly half its budget on the Sheriff’s contract. Like Laguna Woods, Aliso Viejo projects Sheriff’s spending could account for over 55 percent of its budget without any increase in service in the coming years.

Wilberg said Matrix Consulting will be going to the 12 other cities over the next four to six weeks to learn each of the municipalities’ concerns before the group begins studying the Sheriff’s Department services and contracting methods. The study will take six to eight months, he said.

The group was awarded the contract because, Wilberg said, they have experience with these types of contracts.

“Matrix has recently completed studies for the city of San Clemente — a similar study, but limited to some issues in the city of San Clemente,”  Wilberg said, adding the group also recently finished a Laguna Hills study.

“They have, to a degree, a leg-up on various contract provisions that cities deal with … They know the players, if you will. For all intents and purposes, that was the deciding factor.”

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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