A recent (Orange County) Register article highlighted the dire financial predicament most Orange County cities are in. Declining revenues and rising costs have forced them to cut services, lay off employees, and dip into reserves.  Tough economic times are going to outlast reserves (a city’s savings account), experts predict.

Between 2008 and 2010, the Register said, general fund revenues for Orange County cities fell by $258 million (12 percent). It was startling to read that Santa Ana spent 77 percent of its general fund on police and fire protection and cities such as Westminster, Stanton and Garden Grove also spent more than 70 percent on public safety. A soft economy has caused sales tax and property tax revenue to fall. At the same time, cities are faced with increased medical and pension costs.

This means there is less money for streets, parks and recreation, libraries, planning, and programs aimed at the poor, elderly, homeless, and mentally ill-programs that might have prevented a depressed woman from throwing her infant son off a local hospital’s parking structure, or provided police the training they need to deal with mentally ill people such as Kelley Thomas, the homeless man who was recently beaten to death by Fullerton cops.
With Washington and Sacramento broke, and the economy growing at a snail’s pace, and with retirement and health care spiraling upwards, cities must tighten their belts. In particular, they need to consider contracting with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) because police and fire account for the bulk of city general funds.
Orange County has 34 cities. OCFA serves over 1,360,000 residents in 22 cities and unincorporated areas. OCSD provides police services to 12 cities and unincorporated areas. It also administers the county’s jails, and provides police services to OC courts, John Wayne Airport and a wide variety of other services.

Both agencies claim that they can deliver the same level of service for tens of millions of dollars less (countywide) due to economies of scale and the reduction in local overhead. A prudent city council would hire a third party to verify such assertions before taking any action. However, it appears there are areas where significant savings could be made.

For example, does Orange County really need 12 SWAT teams even though it is one of the safest regions in the nation, and crime is at a 40-year low? Or, do three of our cities need their own helicopters-which are terrifically expensive to purchase and maintain-when the Sheriff’s helicopter can reach the furthest parts of the county from John Wayne Airport in five minutes?
Moreover, does it make sense to train folks to be specialists in homicide investigations and white collar crime when such incidents occur infrequently in many of our smaller cities? 
If these assertions regarding costs savings are true, why, then, aren’t cash strapped cities lining up to contract with OCFA and OCSD?

The short answer is: lack of political will.

For example, one can infer that many city managers would prefer to contract with OCFA or OCSD. However, few dare alienate their local fire and police departments. They need them to catch the bad guys and put out fires and do other important things. They also have to sit down with them and negotiate a contract. 

Also, local city fire and police departments have strong local support, which they have wisely cultivated. Some departments-such as Anaheim’s and Orange’s-have been around for more than a century.

Cities are reluctant to mess with relationships that have worked well for so long. This is where conventional conservatives (who support the status quo) are at odds with fiscal conservatives, such as Supervisor John Moorlach, who insist major change is necessary to avoid fiscal peril.

City council members -and their campaign consultants-are typically cowed by local police and public safety professional associations. Police and fire are major players in county and city politics. They vet candidates, conduct polls and provide financial and other support to their friends. It is virtually impossible to win a seat on a city council without their support.  Most political consultants advise their clients not to pick a fight with them. (The political fate of the Costa Mesa city council majority will tell us if this advice is still sound.)

For example, during the 2010 campaign, council candidates in the City of Orange came down hard on the costs association with undocumented workers by adopting a “Rule of Law” ordinance, but were stone cold silent when it came to addressing the cost of public pensions.

Moreover, term limits has meant that the very people who voted for unsustainable benefits are long gone-usually to the state legislature-with the help of the very unions they befriended–that is, until they decide to return to local office. 

Others will say that it is imperative that cities maintain local control because cities have different needs and different priorities which they say regional agencies will not be responsive to.
They can also point out that the OCSD track record has not been unblemished: the former sheriff, Mike Carona, is in prison, and Theo Lacy Jail has been a killing field for people like John Chamberlain.

Although convinced they can save the cities millions, OCCFA and OCSD do not want to be seen as bureaucratic empire builders. When asked, they will provide the city a contract bid-at no cost.  However, they, too, can’t afford to alienate their colleagues who work for local fire and police departments. Their need to maintain good professional relations trumps efficiency.
One could conclude from the foregoing that we need fewer public sector workers. Not so. We do not have too many public employees. Approximately 30,000 people work for the County and the 34 city governments. That’s about 1 percent of the 3.1 million people who live in Orange County.  The vast majority work hard and do a good job. There is no way we could have one of the most successful regional economies in the world without them.

The problem isn’t that local government is too big; instead, the problem is that we have too many top heavy local governments. As Yorba Linda City Councilman John Anderson said at a recent council meeting, “The future of municipal services is not diversification but consolidation.” 

Fred Smoller is the director of Masters in Public Administration Program at Brandman University. This column originally appeared on the OC Register’s web site (91/1)