The costs for cities contracting with Sheriff’s Department can’t go down much further, study finds
Photo: The 13 cities that contract with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department have conducted a study looking into the annual rising costs of the department’s contract. (Photo by David Bro, Orange County Register/SCNG)
There isn’t much room for cost cutting in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s contracts to provide police services to 13 cities, according to a long-awaited study commissioned by the communities looking to slow the annual growth of public safety expenses.
“It is apparent that the opportunities for any significant contract cost savings is very limited,” Yorba Linda Assistant City Manager David Christian said in a report summarizing the study for his City Council. The study was released publicly late last week.
Several cities had pushed to look at contracts with the department as their bills for service rose steeply the last several year – in several cases taking up more than half their operating budgets. All 13 contract cities paid toward having the study commissioned in September 2017.
“Our revenues aren’t keeping pace with those increases,” Rancho Santa Margarita City Manager Jennifer Cervantez said in 2017. The city at the time paid 54 percent of its annual operating budget to the Sheriff’s Department.
But the study found the contract cities pay nearly $200 per person less each year than the cities in the county that maintain their own police force.
“All of the contract cities are getting a good deal and certainly, a better deal than if we had our own police departments,” said Mission Viejo City Manager Dennis Wilberg, who spearheaded the effort.
The study does make a few recommendations on how the cities could save money on their contracts. Mission Viejo spends more than $800,000 a year on the maintenance of around 30 law enforcement vehicles, Wilberg said. Some of that money could be saved through having cars’ depreciation and overhead charged as flat rate rather than per mile, the study said.
Also some deputies have not yet reached their top allowed salaries, but the cities are paying the department as if they have. The cities could save money by paying the deputies their actual wages, the study recommended.
Sheriff Don Barnes said the wage disparity has increased recently because so many employees are retiring now – the department hired a larger number of deputies 25 to 30 years ago when many of the south Orange County cities were incorporating. Those retirements have created a void in the patrol operations, filled by deputies with fewer years of service, Barnes said.
The disparity noted in the study will likely be reduced in the next few years, he said. “Those cost savings will be temporary.”
The study was intentionally limited in its scope, Wilberg said. For instance, some elected officials had pitched the cities sharing a police chief, but the study did not explore that idea.
“We realized: ‘Let’s come up with something we can implement in a short time,’” Wilberg said.
Barnes said his department is evaluating how some areas of service could be regionalized, although he declined to specify which. But he and Undersheriff Bob Peterson were skeptical of the cities sharing a police chief.
“When you have a manager who has to report to two or three city managers, who takes priority? Whom do they listen to? It’s very difficult to serve multiple masters,” Peterson said.
But Dana Point Councilwoman Debra Lewis said sharing a police chief should be looked at more vigorously, especially as the sheriff’s costs continue to go up.
“Change is always unnerving,” Lewis said. “We’re not crying wolf when we say this is not sustainable and something has to change.”
Rancho Santa Margarita
San Juan Capistrano