Long Beach City Council members moved this week to keep the potentially explosive issue of citywide sheriff's coverage off the June ballot, saying they need more information before they could decide whether to put the matter to a public vote.
Pro-sheriff council members had been lobbying for a June 2 advisory vote on a proposal to replace the Long Beach Police Department with county sheriff's patrols. But when it became apparent that there was not majority support for a June vote, the effort died. Instead, council members on both sides of the issue joined this week to approve a motion calling for more data.
"I feel this is a very, very important issue for the citizens of Long Beach," said Mayor Ernie Kell. "I think it would be inappropriate to rush this judgment just to put it on the ballot."
The motion, which passed 6 to 2, helps the pro-police faction by postponing a decision on sheriff's patrols.
But it may help sheriff's proponents to a greater extent by putting pressure on the Police Department to measure up to the sheriff's plan. If the department fails, sheriff's supporters will have all the more ammunition for their arguments.
In a report presented to the City Council last month, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block maintained that his agency could put 79 more officers on the streets of Long Beach and add 14 more detectives to investigative units--all for $29 million a year less than it costs the city to maintain its own police force.
Tuesday's motion by Vice Mayor Jeffrey A. Kellogg asks City Manager James C. Hankla to prepare by mid-April a report outlining ways in which the local department could increase its staffing to the levels proposed by the sheriff. The motion also asks for suggestions on how to finance the additional police patrols.
Only a few weeks old, the sheriff's report already has ignited a heated debate on whether the city should retain its own Police Department or disband it and contract with the county Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services.
Although the projected annual savings probably will not be as great as $29 million once police pension costs and the like are taken into account, they are still potentially high enough to catch the attention of city leaders confronted with a bleak budget situation.
The recession has added to the city's fiscal problems, and Hankla has warned that programs probably will have to be cut in the coming budget talks. Indeed, a city staff memo detailing a worst-case budget scenario outlines $18 million in possible spending cuts, including a $7.2-million reduction in police funding and a $3.5-million drop in funding for the Fire Department.
Although it is highly unlikely that police and fire cuts of such magnitude would ever be approved by the council, the numbers do illustrate the severity of the budget crunch, which makes the savings promised by the sheriff all the more attractive.
At the same time, however, there is a strong sentiment in favor of keeping a force under local control. It was bad enough, local boosters say, when the Sheriff's Department was hired in late 1990 to help out the understaffed Long Beach force by patrolling the northern sections of the city. To rely entirely on the county to provide all law enforcement would be shameful for a community of 430,000, insist advocates of a local agency.
Councilmen Tom Clark and Wallace Edgerton, who are both in favor of keeping the Police Department, voted against Kellogg's motion. Councilman Ray Grabinski was absent.