With their proximity to city and county jails, as well as state and federal courthouses, bail bond companies in Santa Ana don't want for business. But now they may want for places to do business.
City officials and representatives of 11 bail bond companies are to meet in December to discuss how to contain the industry within business districts--keeping the firms away from residential neighborhoods where they have been popping up to the consternation of city officials and residents.
"There is an unsavory connotation, seeing the bail bonds business in your neighborhood," said John Schulte, president of Floral Park Neighborhood Assn. "It implies a criminality. Whether in reality it is true or not doesn't matter. It is a perception that matters."
Santa Ana, which has worked hard to reduce crime and attract business, is not bashful about regulating companies that could tarnish its image.
In 1999, the city required check-cashing businesses, used by workers without bank accounts, to be at least 1,000 feet from each other to reduce their concentration.
In 2000, worried that a proliferation of pay phones could promote illegal drug sales and other criminal activity, the city required all pay phone operators to register with the city and set technical limitations to control the placement of phone booths.
And in response to violence at a cyber cafe in Garden Grove, the City Council last year ordered entrepreneurs who offer computer access in Santa Ana coffee shops to install security cameras and hire guards.
Now, bail bond businesses are in the city's crosshairs. Residents complain that the businesses attract an unseemly clientele, and want City Hall to keep them away from residential neighborhoods.
City officials acknowledge that they should try to reduce the concentration of bail bond businesses on 17th Street, a commercial thoroughfare, said City Atty. Joseph W. Fletcher. Over the next several months, planners will discuss assigning bail bond operations their own zoning designation, restricting not only their locations, but also their hours of operation. Many firms are always open, and current zoning does not limit where they operate. Some bail agents say they take calls at their residences, but visit clients elsewhere.
But city officials say they are sensitive to residents who don't want a bail bond business in a residential area.
"This is more than an image issue," said Fletcher. "It's about ensuring that the city maintains quality development standards and addresses adverse uses that can affect neighborhoods."
Bail bond businesses, regulated by the California Department of Insurance, offer a financial guarantee to courts that a criminal defendant will appear in court when scheduled.
The defendant can either personally post the entire court-set bail, or pay 10% of the amount to a bond agent, who will post the entire sum on behalf of the customer.
Although other types of businesses, such as coin-operated laundries, are identified in the city's zoning code, bail bond businesses "have fallen between the cracks," said Ben Kaufman, chief assistant city attorney.
In October, the City Council approved an emergency ordinance stopping bail bond companies from locating or relocating in the city for the next 45 days. On Monday, the council is expected to extend the moratorium for 10 months to give officials time to draft the regulations.
The local action came after Aladdin Bail Bonds planned to move to a prominent intersection, 17th and Flower streets, from a few blocks away. Motorists enter Fisher Park, Morrison Park, West Floral Park and Floral Park neighborhoods from the intersection.
"It's a corner post to the entry of these neighborhoods. We feel the city, from a planning standpoint, should reevaluate these sort of businesses," said Tom Smalley, communications chairman of the Fisher Park Neighborhood Assn., whose plea to residents prompted 200 of them to write e-mails to city officials voicing their concerns.
In his letter to neighbors, Smalley recalled that a restaurant had been denied permission to operate in the neighborhood because it wanted to serve liquor. "Yet, we are going to allow [another] bail bond business within a two-mile radius of this site? Does this seem like we are trying to make Santa Ana a more desirable place to live and enjoy?"
Aladdin President Steffan Gibbs did not return calls seeking comment. His company operates more than 40 offices in California and Idaho.
Bob Drake, president of the Orange County Bail Agents Assn. and president of a Santa Ana bail bond firm, said the clientele at bail bond offices should not alarm residents. The companies are specialized insurance firms that are no more threatening to a neighborhood than a criminal defense attorney's office, he said.
City officials say there are 36 bail bond companies in Santa Ana.
About two-thirds of those arranging for Drake's services are family and friends of those in jail. The other third are people who have been released from jail but, "when they come to our office, they are on their best behavior, happy to be out of jail," Drake said. Many of those who have been released have committed only traffic offenses, he said.
"Most of the people we meet seem like regular people caught up in bad circumstances," Drake said.
"People have a mistaken impression that bail bond companies in general will bring... a criminal element. We do have some bad eggs, but by and large, it's a pretty peaceful operation."