Some Cities Consider Outsourcing Services As A Means To Balance Budgets

LOS ANGELES — Outsourcing trash services is one thing, but contracting law enforcement services out of cities is an administrative experiment that works for some and fails for others.

Few Los Angelenos had heard of Maywood, Calif., until last June, when the city laid off its 37-man police force and outsourced police functions to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

The city’s decision was a result of $19 million in claims against the city’s law enforcement, a sum exceeding the small city’s yearly operating budget. The lawsuits made it impossible for the Maywood Police Department to renew its insurance coverage.

“When Maywood decided to contract law enforcement services out, the decision stemmed from an enormous lack of funds,” said a former employee of the Maywood Police Department who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “A city loses some of its autonomy by doing this. It’s a last resort.”

At the time of the merger between the cities, spokespersons for Maywood asserted that contracting services was the best—perhaps last—option considering Maywood’s desperation and the overall dismal fiscal climate in California.

“We don’t want to be the model for other cities to lay off their employees,” Magdalena Prado, a spokeswoman for the Maywood, said last June, “but our residents have been somewhat pleased.”

In subsequent interviews, Prado added that Maywood had become an experiment, remarking that the city received calls from struggling towns across the country curious about how contracting services was “going to play out.”

For Maywood and Bell the contract didn’t ‘play out’ for long.

Some Maywood officials sought a quick divorce when news of Bell’s rampant corruption scandal was unveiled, and the contract between the two cities ended late last year with the Bell City Council voting to give Maywood a 30-day termination notice.

“Both Maywood and Bell are no strangers to corruption, so in that regard it’s a good thing that [Maywood] relied on the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and Bell reneged on the other contracting agreements back in September,” the former Maywood Police Department employee said. “For Maywood, contracting the services of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department was the most practical decision in terms of money and the allegations of police abuse.”

Those opposed to contracting services say cities lose independence, arguing that there is little guarantee a town’s interests will be met and fully understood by contractors.

The effort to contract city services, as attempted in Maywood, however, is hardly a unique scenario.

With growing uncertainty over revenue projections, many California cities are leaning toward a trend of outsourcing—or merging—police and fire services.

Sonoma County recently announced plans to join two neighboring fire departments. Negotiations are underway with a stated goal of reaching an agreement by July 1, which marks the start of the city’s fiscal year.

The Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority cannot specify how much a merger between the two departments would save until an agreement is signed, but said the city currently spends $9 million a year on both units and hopes to move ahead with the plan to merge them. Proponents of the merger say that joining the two departments will allow for greater efficiency, eliminate redundancy, and provide a cost-effective solution to the city’s firefighting budget.

Contracting services is not new to Sonoma, a county with a 2010-2011 annual budget of $395.4 million.

Since 2004 Sonoma County has merged city services, a move first deemed controversial but now praised as an act of “genius.”

Sonoma contracted the county’s police services to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The decision ultimately saved the city $400,000 per year and has generally improved public safety, according to City Manager Linda Kelly.

Further down the state in Costa Mesa, where the city has a $1.4 million deficit this year, city officials are contemplating outsourcing the firefighting services to Orange County. According to the Orange County Register, the move could save the city somewhere between $2 million and $3.7 million for the year and would close the budget deficit. However, the move would also result in demotions for firefighters, according to the report. It is unclear whether contracting services will result in unemployment for some Costa Mesa firefighters.

Lakewood, a city about a half hour drive from Costa Mesa, already contracts much of its services, from firefighting to trash collection. The city’s public safety, which is run by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, is among the outsourced items.

While merging and outsourcing services has saved many cities money, there is no guarantee that outsourcing lowers costs or operates efficiently.

According to a California State University, Stanislaus study conducted by Dr. Peter J. Nelligan and Dr. William Bourns, 30% of the 478 cities in California contract with their respective county sheriff for police services. The increase in outsourcing services is projected to continue.

“Contract cities have on average significantly higher clearance rates for violent crimes than department cities (especially in Los Angeles County) and the same clearance rates for property crimes,” the study’s authors claimed. “It does not appear that contract cities are paying less because they are getting lower quality police service, at least as measured by crime clearances.”

The Stanislaus study points to a lower number of criminals being caught and charged with crimes in many cities that engage in outsourcing law enforcement.

The study advises more research to understand the effects of outsourcing, but concludes cities need to be cautious about assuming that contracting services is a “one-size-fits-all” solution to a budget crisis.

However, other more traditional budget cuts result in needs for outsourcing or merging city services out of necessity.

For example, in an attempt to balance city budgets, both northern and southern cities in California are cutting and merging police helicopter services.

Newport Beach and Costa Mesa voted to cut its police-helicopter program last month. “We need to do this,” said Councilman Jim Righeimer during a Costa Mesa City Council meeting last month. “This program is gushing dollars out of it.”

Instead Costa Mesa is expected to instead rely on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department helicopter program following the cut to what Costa Mesa’s City Council calls a “luxury” police program.

Other cities have followed suit.

Last month the San Jose Police Department announced it would halt helicopter flights for a minimum of three months while it plans to evaluate savings and the impact on public safety. Flying the helicopter costs the city $1.4 million a year, according to officials.

In the interim it appears the San Jose Police Department will come to rely on the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, which contracts a pilot for flights and spends less money on flying a chopper. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office spends about $329,000 a year on helicopter services and pays for it with asset-seizure funds instead of taxpayer money. The helicopter services for Santa Clara are a fraction of the city’s 2011 budget of $6,236,556 2011. Compared to Costa Mesa, which spent over a million dollars on helicopter services, Santa Clara has learned to get by with spending less on their programs by relying on a different branch of law enforcement to provide the service.

Cutting helicopter programs is one thing, but hiring freezes or across-the-board cuts concern some officials who believe such cuts result in outsourcing.

In El Cerrito, Police Chief Sylvia Moir said that Jerry Brown’s proposed budget cuts would mean that criminals return to the streets quickly because services in the area ARE already stretched thin. Nearby cities already make use of El Cerrito’s services. Nearby Kensington, a city located between Berkeley and El Cerrito, contracts fire and emergency medical services from El Cerrito.

“Many offenses are classified in law as being non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenses that are, in fact, serious offenses,” Moir told the El Cerrito City Council last month. “A wholesale transfer of these offenders to county jail custody will result in the release of other inmates of county jails, resulting in an increase of offenders to our communities.”

At a Los Angeles City Council meeting in January, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appealed to City Council member to fund police at the same level as last year. Villaraigosa, along with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, said the crime rates in Los Angeles were at the lowest since the 1950s but cautioned against the “consequences” of cutting funds to police services.

Although Villaraigosa indicated increased crime might be the result of police cuts, more outsourcing of services is a likely result when cities are forced to cut funding to existing services.

It’s a move that has worked for some cities and has helped others balance their budgets, but the long-term impact of contracting out services, particularly law enforcement, has not been studied.

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