South Orange County Cities See Steep Increases for Sheriff Protection

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

The Orange County Sheriffs Department office in Dana Point.

Cities across South Orange County are watching their law enforcement costs soar by more than 20 percent over the last four years largely due to salary and benefit increases authorized by county supervisors during their campaigns for office.

County supervisors are set to approve the latest round of city contract increases on Tuesday.

In the last four years, about half of the 13 cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department have seen their contract costs rise by more than 20 percent, according to county data.

Laguna Niguel, often designated as one of the safest cities in America, saw its costs rise 37 percent over the last four years.

By comparison, the overall cost of goods and services in Orange County and Los Angeles rose by 11 percent during that period, as measured by the most common metric of inflation, the consumer price index.

City and sheriff officials attribute the increases mainly to salary and benefit raises approved by county supervisors, as well as extra staff and services some cities have added.

“Regarding the sheriff’s contract increases in cities, the salary and benefits were negotiated by the Orange County Board of Supervisors. So that’s why the contracts are increased and the cities are bearing the brunt of that,” said Laura Lopez, spokeswoman for the city of Rancho Santa Margarita, who was providing comment from Jennifer Cervantes, the city manager and president of the Orange County City Managers Association.

“Some [cities also] have chosen to add a sheriff or two to their patrol of their city, so they would be paying more for that,” she added.

The increases are “both salary and benefit driven, as well as some areas have increased services and added positions,” said OC Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun. The average increase proposed in the new contracts is less than 2 percent more than the current year contracts, she noted.

The year-over-year increases this year for the new contracts vary from 0.6% in Mission Viejo, to about a 5 percent increase each in San Clemente and Laguna Niguel and 6 percent increase in Villa Park.

Only one county supervisor responded to Voice of OC’s request for comment about the increases.

Supervisor Doug Chaffee said the increases the cities are facing are similar to the what the county is seeing with its own rising Sheriff’s Department costs.

“Is it too much? It always seems that way,” Chaffee said of the rising law enforcement costs, adding “cities are always struggling with their budget.”

“It increases for us too, at the county, and of course we’d like to get clearer answers,” he added.

“We’re about to have that budget discussion. That’ll be part of it. It seems like we never get all the clear answers we’d like.”

The amount each city spends, on a per-resident basis, varies significantly by city.

On one end of the spectrum, Dana Point spends about $400 annually per resident for sheriff services, more than twice as much as Aliso Viejo, Yorba Linda and Laguna Woods, which are around $180 per person annually.

Yorba Linda was the most recent city to switch to the Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services, which took place in 2013.

Orange County supervisors have starkly shifted taxpayer spending priorities over the last decade – cutting millions in unrestricted dollars from public health and social services while more than doubling such spending on the Sheriff’s Department, in a trend that’s continuing this year.

The sheriff increases in recent years weren’t driven by increased service levels, according to the department, but rather were mainly due to large salary and benefit raises approved by county supervisors that coincided with elections in 2016 and this coming year.

The sheriff’s deputies’ union is the largest campaign spender on OC supervisor and sheriff elections, spending more than $1 million over the last five years through its political action committee.

The deputies’ union has said the raises are crucial for keeping compensation competitive and not losing deputies to other law enforcement agencies that offer higher pay and benefits.

Both sets of raises were approved with no public debate or comment by the county supervisors, and lock in a series of annual salary increases.

Villa Park City Manager Steve Franks said his city’s increase is not from a change in service levels, but rather due to the city agreeing to have the sheriff now charge for event security the city previously wasn’t paying for, as well as the increased salary and benefits supervisors approved, which he said is the main driver of the increases.

“Basically as we understand [it], the county is catching up because some of the charges had not been coming over to Villa Park over the years…so they are truing up those,” Franks told Voice of OC on Monday, adding “it was a logical explanation” for the cost increase.

“So there’s no change in service level or anything along those lines.”

The main event is the city’s annual dry boat parade, which the Sheriff’s Department helps shut down traffic for, Franks said.

“We’re very happy with [the Sheriff’s Department]. And the council approved them with a 5-0 vote…so there was no issue at all. We’re very pleased,” Franks said, adding that residents frequently bring cookies and cake for the sheriff’s deputies.

County supervisors typically approve the sheriff’s city contracts as proposed. Tuesday’s meeting is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m., with a live video stream available through the county website.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.