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Five officers account for over 43% of the entire payroll expense.
By Brian Hews
The City of La Palma is in budget crisis mode, with the tiny city projected to run a budget deficit of $836,000 in 2016-2017 on projected revenues of $9,754,000.
It is so bad that La Palma residents will soon be asked whether they would approve a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot aimed at generating additional revenue for the cash-strapped city.
The city hired a consulting firm to prepare at least two mailers explaining the city’s fiscal woes. A $94,000 contract for the outreach was approved 4-0 by the City Council.
“We’re at a critical juncture in our 60-year history, ” City Manager Laurie Murray told the council. “Communicating the city’s fiscal condition is critical to the city’s long-term success into the future. ”
While presenting a mid-year budget update to the City Council, Murray said that La Palma faces a $612,000 shortfall for 2015-2016. The city has already drastically cut costs, and is even looking at cutting the popular La Palma Days parade.
But City officials refuse to look at the big elephant in the room, the La Palma Police Department.
La Palma is only 1.8 square miles, and a recent CNN report specifically lauded the town for enjoying both “the lowest crime rate and the quickest police response time in Orange County.”
But the residents of La Palma are paying a high price for that distinction.
A Hews Media Group-Community News investigation has revealed that the La Palma Police Department (LPD) pays many of its employees far more than other small cities in Southern California.
And a review of public records from similar sized cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department in Los Angeles and Orange County revealed that the City could possibly cut the current $4.6 million budget by at least $2 million.
Large Police Budget
For the past few years, the LPD has accounted for nearly half of the city’s $11 million budget.
Police Chief Eric Nunez who recently left the LPD after 25 years to become Chief of the Los Alamitos Police Department, was in charge of LPD for the past five years.
In 2014, Chief Nunez earned $176,171 in regular pay with total pay plus benefits amounting to $253,458, according to the website Transparent California.
Nunez’ department accounted for 41 employees.
Sandra Hutchinson, head of the Orange County Sheriff’s, earned $214,000 in 2014 in regular pay, with total pay plus benefits amounting to over $409,000.
Hutchins has over 4,000 employees.
Besides Nunez’s quarter million salary, five La Palma police sergeants earned from $190,000 to $206,000 in salary and benefit packages with one sergeant earning over $60,000 in overtime. The sergeant’s regular pay is $84,000.
The five sergeants plus Nunez accounted for over $1.2 million, or 26% of the department’s $4.5 million budget and over 43% of the entire salary budget. They also earned over $278,000 in benefits, averaging $55,700 each.
Transparent California records also show that with base pay, overtime pay, and benefits, a La Palma police officer can earn up to $190,000 patrolling the 1.8 square mile beat.
Additional public records show that many police department employees earn nearly double the median income, $87,763.
Nunez and his sergeants’ salaries were slightly higher than many other Orange County police departments, yet they patrol one of the smallest towns in Southern California—-with a massive budget problem.
In 2015, then La Palma Mayor Peter Kim submitted a request for the City Council to consider appointing a temporary Citizen Committee that would be tasked with reviewing the City’s operations and finances and then recommending to the City Council a plan to achieve long-term financial sustainability.
In their report to City Council, the committee said, “The Police Department is the single largest expenditure of the City’s general fund budget, and will continue to increase over the next decade. As a key component to the City’s financial sustainability, the Committee strongly recommends the City Council explore the option of shared or combined police services or restructuring of the police department as a preference to contracting out the services.”
Yet the report was not backed by police expenses in other cities with Sheriff’s contracts.
HMG-CN research on similar sized cities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties showed that La Palma could drastically cut the police department expense.
Artesia, located in Los Angeles County and in close proximity to La Palma, is smaller at 1.6 square miles and slightly larger in population (16,541) than La Palma. Artesia’s 2015 budget for the L.A. County Sheriff’s was $2.8 million.
The L.A. Sheriff’s Department expense would amount to $169 per person; $2.8 million/16,541.
Stanton, located in Orange County, is larger at 3.2 square miles with a larger population (38,000) than La Palma. Stanton’s 2015 budget for the O.C. Sheriff’s was $8 million.
The Sheriff’s Department expense would amount to $205 per person; $8 million/39,000.
La Palma’s per person expense is $250, 48% higher than Artesia and 22% higher than Stanton’s.
Stanton’s expense of $205 per person would equate to a $3.3 million budget, or a savings of $1.3 million per year.
Artesia’s expense of $169 per person would equate to a $2.7 million budget, or a savings of $2.9 million per year.
Residents of La Palma are very happy with their police and the response time, but are very unhappy with the current budget situation and cuts to city services.
It remains to be seen what choice residents and La Palma City officials will make.
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