San Clemente Votes to Retain Emergency Staff

Times Staff Writer

Nelda Beeuwsaert, a San Clemente police sergeant, never knew how much she was appreciated until the City Council in January ordered a study into whether it would be cheaper to do away with her job.

The council was considering whether money could be saved by disbanding the city's police, fire and lifeguard departments and contracting instead with the county and a private company for those services. The proposal sparked a communitywide furor, with hundreds of angry residents calling City Hall in protest.

"We couldn't be more grateful for the community support," said Sgt. Beeuwsaert, who, along with about 100 city emergency personnel, has been wondering since then whether she will still have employment.

A reprieve came Wednesday night when the council, bowing to overwhelming public pressure, voted unanimously to drop consideration of contracting for public safety services. About three dozen police, firefighters and lifeguards who were present in the council chambers burst into applause at the voting outcome.

Despite the 5-0 vote, Mayor Brian R. Rice warned that the issue could come up again, since the city is seeking ways to raise more money to provide essential services for its fast-growing population. The city's population has grown from 30,000 to 37,500 since 1980, with more development on the way.

"We do not want to go with the county unless there is an extreme situation," Rice said. "But the budget is getting tight, and that's the reason it's being brought up."

Rice added that when San Clemente hires a new city manager to replace James B. Hendrickson, who announced his resignation several weeks ago, the manager would be asked to examine ways to cut the budget, and that could include doing away with the local emergency services.

San Clemente has operated its own police, fire and lifeguard departments since the city was founded in 1929. San Clemente and Laguna Beach are the only cities in rapidly growing south Orange County that do not contract with the county for emergency services.

The cities of Dana Point, Mission Viejo and San Juan Capistrano all rely upon the Orange County Sheriff's Department and County Fire Department for emergency protection. The county contracts for beach lifeguards with a private company, Lifeguard International Beach Services.

At Wednesday's meeting, San Clemente Councilman Scott Diehl adamantly opposed even discussing about doing away with the local police, fire and lifeguard services, and asked that the issue not be brought up again.

'A Lot of Disruption

"I am extremely happy with the organizations we have now," Diehl said. "I think there's been a lot of disruption to our departments (by even considering a change)."

Many residents agreed emphatically with Diehl.

"The personnel of these departments are the only city employees many of us recognize," Bob and Maxine Beasley wrote in a letter to the council. "Their badges, uniforms and vehicles identify them as being part of San Clemente. We like that."

Councilwoman Candace Haggard, who fielded more than 200 calls from like-minded residents, heaped praise on the uniformed emergency workers present in the council chambers and extended them an apology.

"I'm sorry this study created such morale problems," Haggard said.

Afterward, Fire Chief Tom Dailey described the anxiety his 28 full-time firefighters had gone through in recent weeks.

"It's just totally devastated us for 3 weeks now," Dailey said. "They were just concerned whether they'd have a job or not."

San Clemente Police Chief Al Ehlow said his 65-member force also had been sweating it out.

"We had a lot of people anxious, wondering, 'Where am I going to be? What am I going to do?' " Ehlow said.

As he spoke outside City Hall Wednesday night, an on-duty patrolman drove up in a squad car and gestured anxiously at Ehlow, inquiring about the outcome of the council's vote. He drove on when Ehlow gave him a smile and a thumbs up.

Although police, fire and lifeguards currently employed by the city probably would be offered jobs under a contractual arrangement with the county Sheriff's and Fire departments, as happened last year in the city of Stanton, Sgt. Beeuwsaert said that working for a city is preferable.

"It's just the idea of working in a small community," she said. "With the county, we could go to the jail or another part of the county. We would have less control over our assignments."

The issue of contracting for emergency services has come up repeatedly in San Clemente in recent years as the city has struggled to maintain essential services for its rapidly growing population.

City Manager Hendrickson said the city is trying to come up with more money to finance such items as additional workers for parks and streets maintenance, as well as a new paramedic unit. The city has only one paramedic unit, and the cost to bring in another is estimated at about $300,000, he said.

Since police, fire and lifeguard services now account for about 40% of the city's $16-million budget, Hendrickson said the council has focused much of its budget-trimming efforts there.

At a retreat in mid-January, the council directed its staff to research the advantages and disadvantages to contracting out for services. Hendrickson, Police Chief Ehlow and Lifeguard Director Michael L. Sorg submitted reports which concluded that while the city could save some money by contracting out, it would not have as high a quality of emergency services, nor would it retain local control.

Exact cost comparisons between contracting for services and keeping existing public safety departments were not made. Those comparisons would have to come from the county government, and Wednesday night, the council considered asking the county to conduct such a study. Instead, the council voted 5 to 0 to drop the matter altogether.

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