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Skyrocketing sheriff's costs threaten OC city budgets

An Orange County Sheriff's Department helicopter rescues a surfer at Trestles Beach in San Clemente on Aug. 12, 2017. Cities that contract with OCSD for law enforcement say skyrocketing costs threaten their fiscal sustainability. Courtesy: Orange County Sheriff's Department

Orange County cities covered by the sheriff’s department are looking for ways to contain ballooning costs for law enforcement. Costs have increased sharply to the cities over the last decade, thanks almost entirely to increases in deputies’ salary and benefits and pension liabilities. 

Laguna Hills pays 14 percent more for law enforcement services than it did 10 years ago, even though it has eliminated three deputy positions in recent years in order to save money, according to a recent report from city staff. Laguna Hills now spends nearly 40 percent of its budget on law enforcement.

“You need the protection but the costs are so astronomical,” Laguna Hills Councilwoman Janine Heft said. 

The 13 cities that contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for policing services plan to hire a contractor to study ways to keep costs under control.

Laguna Hills is already exploring ways to partner with neighboring cities Laguna Woods and Aliso Viejo to share some law enforcement costs, for example, by having a single police chief for the three cities. Currently, each city that contracts with the sheriff’s department has its own chief of police services even though city sizes vary greatly. 

“Your hands are tied in a lot of ways so you gotta get creative,” Heft said.

OCSD spokesman Lane Lagaret said Sheriff Sandra Hutchens welcomes the cost study. Nevertheless, he said, “We suspect they’re going to find out they’re getting a lot for what they’re paying for.”

He said contract cities benefit from access to specialized crime-fighting teams, like SWAT teams and bomb squads, which they don’t pay for through their contracts.

"If they wanted to establish their own police department, they would have to pay for all of that up front,” he said.

He agreed that law enforcement costs to cities have risen largely because of salary raises. "If we’re going to incur more costs, we have to share with the cities,” he said.

Laguna Woods Mayor Shari Horne said she’s deeply concerned about the city’s fiscal viability if law enforcement costs keep rising. Laguna Woods, which has some 16,000 residents and few retail businesses, spends more than half of its annual budget on its contract with the sheriff’s department, she said.

“You only get so much from property taxes and sales tax,” she said. "When costs go up that we have no control over … that severely impacts your budget because we don’t have any place to get more money."

Horne said the city has had to cut staff to the bone and slash services like subsidized transportation for seniors.

“We’ve even reduced our internet speed to save $100 a month,” she said. 

Horne noted that cities have no say in negotiations with sheriff’s department employees over salary and benefits.

The 13 contract cities hope to have the study on sheriff’s costs completed by the end of next year.