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Should homeowners across Orange County’s most park-poor areas spend a portion of their special park-related property taxes to fund free police patrols for Newport Harbor?

That’s the question that many want a special county land-use commission, known as LAFCO, to study as early as today.

But more and more, it looks like the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission – structured to make sure that taxpayers aren’t paying for duplicated services – will take a pass.

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Like so many before them.

Homeowners across the county hoping for more local park spending don’t stand a chance. 

“Possibly no aspect of Orange County local government has been more studied that the Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol,” wrote Sheriff Don Barnes to local LAFCO commissioners on July 13 in opposition to LAFCO granting a City of Newport Beach request to study whether their own harbor department should handle harbor patrols. 

“A total of at least 17 studies have been conducted since 1975,” Barnes wrote. 

And what some call the Sheriff’s Navy has outlasted them all. 

It’s a premium gig for Sheriff’s Deputies, reportedly set up by former Sheriff Brad Gates as a way to offer an easy transition to retirement for the department’s favored ones. 

But there are open questions about how many law enforcement response calls there really are for deputies working the harbor patrol vs. general assistance efforts for boaters (something private tow companies aren’t too happy about). 

According to the most comprehensive report I’ve ever seen analyzing the Harbor Patrol – a contention that former Sheriff Sandra Hutchens agreed with in writingOrange County’s Performance Audit Division concluded in 2010 that less than five percent of calls for service at the harbor patrol are related to “general law enforcement duties (ie: making arrests, preserving the peace, investigating crimes).”

The same report noted that taxpayers spent just over $12 million that year on providing harbor patrol services to the county’s main harbors at Sunset/Huntington Beach, Dana Point and Newport. 

On Tuesday, Orange County CEO Frank Kim was able to tell me, to the penny (on deadline), the amount spent by taxpayers as of today: Just over $14 million for the three harbors.

Newport harbor costs $2.7 million while Dana Point is $4.9 million and Huntington/Sunset harbor is at $7.2 million.

The Performance Audit Division report noted that the costs for Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol services were skyrocketing for contract users because of the enhanced pensions that county supervisors granted to Deputy Sheriffs around 2001. Since the costs of those increases kicked in, harbor patrol budgets have continued to soar.

The report noted that in FY 00/01 the cost for the harbor patrol was $6.9 million. After the implementation of the pension enhancement known as 3@50, the costs soared to $8 million in FY 02/03. By FY 07/08, costs seemed to level out in ensuing years at about $12 million.

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Now, here’s the strange twist that many want LAFCO to study.

According to the Performance Audit investigation, in 1988, as part of a scheme to avoid state “Gann” limits on spending, county supervisors decided to fund the Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol through the OC Parks Department, specifically through a patchwork of tidelands and property tax funds that primarily fund parks throughout Orange County. 

County Service Area 26 is the property tax area that funds harbor patrol and it is itself funded through property taxes from cities across Orange County like Anaheim, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Fullerton set aside for parks. 

Now, given that Newport Harbor is also a county asset, Kim notes that the use of harbor patrol funds is reasonable and within the scope of what the park funds were intended to be used for. 

Yet the Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks (FHBP) – set up in the 1990s by activists to advocate for OC Parks – have been raising questions about the funding for years, arguing that critical park projects in others areas should be getting those funds. 

“The use of CSA 26 funds to finance a Sheriff’s operation (Harbor Patrol) is concerning given the Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol is tasked with duties outside the harbor such as Homeland Security and offshore rescue. CSA 26 funds are to be spent within the district. The MSR should discuss whether funding a city-operated harbor patrol, that has a sole mission to serve the harbor, is a more appropriate use of CSA 26 funds,” wrote FHBP President Michael Wellborn on Feb. 7, 2020 to LAFCO. 

Most recently, FHBP noted that given recent efforts by Newport Beach to establish their own harbor department, it makes sense to study whether the park funds could be better spent elsewhere. 

“Given the fact that in 2017 the City of Newport Beach established a City run Harbor Department that is now handling many of the day-to-day functions that were previously handled by the Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol Bureau, the need to study the efficiency and effectiveness of Harbor Patrol Services in Newport Harbor is even more critical today,” wrote FHBP President Michael Wellborn on Aug. 2 to LAFCO. 

That’s exactly what Newport Beach officials themselves asked LAFCO to do back in December 2020. 

Until the issue got public airing at the July 13 LAFCO monthly public meeting. 

There, Barnes’ letter was delivered and County Supervisors Don Wagner and Lisa Bartlett supported a continuance of the issue, to give the Sheriff more time to connect with Newport. 

That apparently happened in early August with Barnes meeting privately with Newport Beach City Manager Grace K. Leung.

Shortly after that meeting, Leung wrote LAFCO asking them to forget about the city’s request to study whether taxpayers are getting double-billed to patrol one of America’s safest harbors. 

Neither Barnes nor Leung would discuss the details of what was said during their private meeting. 

But Leung noted that Barnes reminded her that the city harbor patrol doesn’t handle law enforcement matters. 

That motivated her to keep working with the Sheriff’s Department.  

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The City of Newport set up its own harbor department back in 2017 just after officials also took over mooring administration from the county.

“We have a lot of activities that go on in the harbor,” Leung said. 

Regarding the original motivation for a review, Leung said, “We thought when you have multiple government agencies in an area, it would be good to look at overlap.”

That makes total sense. 

Especially when you consider that there have reportedly been coordination issues on emergency response between all the overlapping agencies around the harbor. 

“That’s been an area where we’ve had lots of discussions to cooperate,” Leung confirmed. 

Given that the city harbor department is only four years old, she said, along with the value of cooperation and coupled with Barnes concerns, Leung said, she decided to “pull this back and see how we are working together.”

Leung said she only advised Mayor Brad Avery of her action and not the rest of the council since the action was administrative in nature. 

“I want a productive relationship with the Sheriff,” she said. 

That means it’s up to someone else to ask questions about tax equity for park poor residents. 

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