RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA — For decades, the sight of Riverside County sheriff’s deputies patrolling cities they serve as the local police force has been as familiar as palm trees and distant mountaintops.
But two county supervisors have raised the prospect of large cities like Moreno Valley going their own way for law enforcement instead of relying on the Sheriff’s Department. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday, Feb. 27, to put off approval of a revised sheriff’s contract for Moreno Valley for 60 days.
The delay — which also affects a contract with the smaller city of Rancho Mirage — is meant to provide time to see if money-saving ideas from consulting firm KPMG can be incorporated into cities’ contracts. County officials also are concerned the county isn’t getting enough from cities to recoup the cost of law enforcement services, especially in cities of 100,000 or more.
It’s part of a complex and at times acrimonious debate over the Sheriff’s Department’s funding levels and whether it can run more efficiently. Sheriff Stan Sniff, who has said county budget cuts have taken their toll on his department, has repeatedly criticized KPMG’s work as ineffective.
In turn, Supervisor John Tavaglione has lambasted the sheriff for, he says, not cooperating with cost-cutting efforts meant to fix chronic budget shortfalls that threaten public services and possibly employees’ jobs.
The Moreno Valley contract before supervisors, which would run from fiscal year 2017-18 to mid-2022, would modify an existing pact for sheriff’s services. Moreno Valley would pay $223 million over the contract’s lifetime, with more than 30 positions, including 26 deputy slots, being eliminated.
The Sheriff’s Department provides police services for 17 of the county’s 28 cities under contracts that guarantee a certain level of service. By law, the county can’t make a profit from those contracts.
Contract rates have risen in recent years, and officials in contract cities have said it’s gotten harder to afford the cost of service — which they find satisfactory aside from the price.
Supervisors have their own problems with the contracts, saying the rates don’t fully recoup the cost of service. KPMG, which is getting more than $40 million to make county government more efficient, was originally brought on to study the contract rate.
Supervisor Marion Ashley, whose district includes Moreno Valley, made the motion Tuesday to delay action on the Moreno Valley and Rancho Mirage contracts, but offered reasoning that sheriff’s officials later disputed.
He said the Sheriff’s Department transfers deputies assigned to unincorporated areas to contract cities when deputies patrolling those cities get sick, go on vacation or need time to recuperate from injuries.
That may have been fine when more deputies were in the field, but with tighter budgets and less staffing, he said, “Anytime that we pull somebody out of the unincorporated area … we’re leaving the county less protected than it was before.”
In an emailed response, sheriff’s officials said Ashley’s comments “are perhaps based on mistaken information – information certainly not provided by the Sheriff’s Department regarding our contract city operations over several decades.”
The department does not “routinely ‘pull’ county patrol deputies to staff contract city operations at the expense of county taxpayers,” the statement read. It said the department is prohibited from “subsidizing” the contract cities with county resources, and vice versa.
Cuts to staffing in unincorporated areas are due solely to county budget cuts, according to sheriff’s officials.
Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said it was his understanding that Moreno Valley — the largest city with a sheriff’s contract, having just over 200,000 residents — is a major driver of liability costs stemming from lawsuits against law enforcement. Litigation arising from officer-involved shootings or allegations of police brutality contributes to the county’s liability expenses, which have gone up in recent years.
“And frankly, there’s the potential that the county is not going to do contracts for extremely large cities going forward,” Jeffries said. “If that’s a decision the board wants to make, we need to give those one or two or three cities, two or three years’ notice to make plans go out on their own, if that’s the direction we choose to go because we lose money with these contract cities.”
Tavaglione, who has said large cities should have their own police departments, called for the 60-day delay in approving contracts for Moreno Valley and Rancho Mirage instead of the 30 days Ashley suggested.
“This is a process that we’re going through to find the efficiencies in our contracts to help our cities where appropriate,” Tavaglione said. “In doing so, we may decide that the larger cities may find a need to go their own. At the same time, we may find that we can create very strong efficiencies for them.”
In an emailed statement, Moreno Valley City Manager Tom DeSantis said the city has been “well served” by the Sheriff’s Department.
“Public safety remains the highest priority for our City Council and we look forward to moving forward with our county partners in a responsible manner,” he wrote.
Nine contract cities – Coachella, Jurupa Valley, Lake Elsinore, Menifee, Moreno Valley, Perris, San Jacinto, Temecula and Wildomar – hired a consulting firm to gauge the feasibility of a forming an alliance to handle police services as an alternative to rely on the Sheriff’s Department.
Those efforts have yet to produce a formal plan for police protection, although a consultant hired by the nine cities found a joint powers authority could save those cities a combined $14 million a year in law enforcement costs.
DeSantis said Moreno Valley is in “active discussions with our colleagues regarding the next steps in this study.”
Of Riverside County’s six cities with at least 100,000 residents, three — Riverside, Corona and Murrieta — have their own police forces, and three — Moreno Valley, Temecula and Jurupa Valley — contract with the Sheriff’s Department. Among smaller cities, eight have police departments and 14 have sheriff’s contracts.
Cities with sheriff’s contracts: Calimesa, Canyon Lake, Coachella, Eastvale, Indian Wells, Jurupa Valley, La Quinta, Lake Elsinore, Menifee, Moreno Valley, Norco, Palm Desert, Perris, Rancho Mirage, San Jacinto, Temecula, Wildomar
Cities with police departments: Banning, Beaumont, Blythe, Cathedral City, Corona, Desert Hot Springs, Hemet, Indio, Murrieta, Palm Springs, Riverside
From The Press-Enterprise