$360 is the new fee for excessive calls to police

Following a vote Tuesday by the Costa Mesa City Council, some motel owners in the city could find themselves wondering whether a call to the police to report rowdy guests or criminal activity is worth the $360 it could cost them for taking up officers’ time.

In voting to officially set that dollar amount Tuesday night, the Costa Mesa City Council ironed out another detail of the city’s “Excessive Use of Resources” ordinance, which was passed earlier this month.

The ordinance aims to recover costs from motel and hotel operators who, council members have said, essentially use police as onsite security, racking up expensive hours of work to solve problems on their property.

Therefore, the ordinance says, lodging operators who call police to report “nuisance activities” more than an average of 0.4 times per room per month should reimburse the city. Calls alerting police to domestic violence or summoning fire or ambulance services are excluded.

Managers and owners of motels facing the council majority’s ire say the ordinance will make them think twice before calling police and that this could have dire consequences in a tense situation. Others have raised concerns that the ordinance unfairly targets motels and hotels, while certain bars and apartment complexes also require a good deal of police attention.

The $360, a city staff report said, was arrived at by dividing the annual Police Department budget — about $40.2 million — by annual calls for service, minus routine patrol checks and 9-1-1 calls that were canceled, unfounded or otherwise unnecessary to log.

That yielded an initial estimate of $515 per call, from which city staff subtracted 30% to “counteract charges” for police work unrelated to responding to calls.

Councilwoman Sandy Genis said she was dissatisfied with what Assistant City CEO Rick Francis explained was more of an estimation than a scientific calculation.

Tracking the outcome of each police call would have taken massive amounts of staff time, he said, which in turn would have cost money. Costa Mesa police and city staff have in the past declined to estimate how much each call to motels costs, saying too many factors are at play.

Still, Genis said, $360 appears to be a “kind of a seat-of-the-pants number, and I want a real number.”

She said the idea that only 30% of the Police Department’s budget was spent on activities unrelated to actively responding to calls was further evidence that it is understaffed.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger called it a matter of proportion — that certain motels take up an undue amount of police time and refuse to make changes to their operations that would stop them from attracting potentially problematic guests.

The resolution passed 3 to 1, with Genis voting against it. Councilwoman Wendy Leece was absent.


A modest staffing increase

In other business, the council voted unanimously to increase city staffing levels, authorizing the hiring of 12 employees and boosting the city’s annual payroll by $1.64 million.

Four of the positions are sworn police officers, whose duties would include helping to monitor prisoners released early under the state’s prison realignment program and registered sex offenders living in Costa Mesa.

City CEO Tom Hatch told the council that it has been tough to maintain the high standard of work with a staff that has been cut by about 150 members over the past four years. Nevertheless, he said, keeping a tight rein on spending remains a top priority.

Council members and members of the public lauded the move as a step in the right direction for a city that has seen years of fierce debate over austerity proposals, including efforts to reduce the city’s pension liability.

Recently, a Daily Pilot investigation found that the Police Department had been having trouble filling existing vacancies, with few officers seeking transfers to Costa Mesa.

At least one officer cited an unwillingness to jump into a “political hotbed of controversy” as a contributing factor.

Mayor Jim Righeimer said he’s been meeting with Police Chief Tom Gazsi regularly and at length to try to hash out what’s best for the city and for the department.

“One of the things you have to understand about this community is everybody in the council cares about the community,” he said. “It’s just differences in the way we do things.”

The vote, he added, was a “first, first, first good step in moving forward.”


60th anniversary questions

Lingering questions about the financing behind Costa Mesa’s 60th anniversary celebration also briefly bubbled to the surface Tuesday night.

“The community’s been very patient and the council’s been very patient, and I’m not rushing anything,” said Righeimer. “But we just really want to get to the end of this.”

Sue Lester, who served on the celebration’s planning committee, raised the issue during the meeting’s public comment period. She urged the city to make public the findings of an independent forensic audit of the event.

Without that information, she said, committee members have been left “twisting in the wind.”

“It was a very successful event in terms of people having a great time,” she said. “But I’m concerned about the appearance of misappropriation of public funds.”

A Daily Pilot investigation found that the city shelled out close to $400,000 for the celebration. According to preliminary estimates, the city paid about $79,000 more than expected.

The two city employees charged with planning the event were placed on administrative leave for unstated reasons following the celebration. Special Events Coordinator Christine Cordon was recently cleared to return to work. Dan Joyce, public affairs manager, is still on leave.

Hatch responded to the concerns Tuesday by saying that the city aimed to post the audit results by Friday. Barring that, he said, city staff would post status updates to clarify where the audit stands.

—Daily Pilot staff writer Bradley Zint also contributed to this report.