Costa Mesa police chief blasts proposed city budget, saying it will ‘jeopardize safety’

Costa Mesa Police Chief Rob Sharpnack speaks during a dinner presented by the Chamber of Commerce in 2018. In a recent memo to the City Council, Sharpnack raised many concerns about the city’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
(File Photo)

Costa Mesa’s top cop is crying foul over the city’s recent budget proposal, alleging that it shortchanges the Police Department in a way that imperils public safety.

In a May 23 memo to the City Council, Police Chief Rob Sharpnack also blasted the budget development process led by Finance Director Kelly Telford and acting City Manager Tamara Letourneau as “chaotic, full of poor decisions and saturated in secrecy.”

“Tammy, Kelly and her staff have made arbitrary cuts and changes to our budget without our knowledge and with no understanding of law enforcement whatsoever,” wrote Sharpnack, who was named chief in 2015. “This has been the worst budget process both my staff and I have ever witnessed.”

Letourneau and Telford declined to comment through a city spokesman Thursday.

The city’s preliminary budget, released this month, shows appropriations to the Police Department increasing from the current $49.18 million to a proposed $49.7 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year that begins July 1.

But in his memo, a copy of which the Daily Pilot received Thursday, Sharpnack questioned what he feels is a “lack of priority for law enforcement and the rationale behind funding other projects, events and items over safety.”

As currently constructed, he wrote, the proposed budget “will negatively impact our ability to do our job in a safe manner,” “will jeopardize safety in the community” and “place the Police Department in a very unstable and dangerous position. In my opinion, this is much more than dollars and cents; this is about the working climate both now and in the future.”

Mayor Pro Tem John Stephens said Thursday that “obviously, the Police Department is a high priority and it needs to be appropriately funded.” But he pointed out that “we also have additional expenses that we need to budget for, including salary and benefits that have been agreed to and the homeless shelter operation.”

During a May 14 council study session, staff proposed using $3.15 million in general fund reserves to shore up next fiscal year’s budget. A double whammy of increasing costs and potentially slowing revenue growth also has the city forecasting potential operating deficits of about $11.6 million to $14.2 million over the following five fiscal years.

“It’s like any other circumstance where you have a finite amount of money and you’re trying to allocate it in the appropriate way,” Stephens said. “It’s about trying to choose the right priorities.”

In a statement Thursday, Sharpnack said he “will continue to work from within to resolve the identified issues.”

“As a law enforcement leader, one of my fundamental duties is to ensure my team has the resources they need to do their jobs,” he said. “The members of my department have done an outstanding job adapting to a number of challenges over the past several years. The current law enforcement environment is more challenging and scrutinized than ever before. This organization is healthy and has great momentum; however, if you are not moving forward, you are falling behind. While it is an honor and a privilege to serve the Costa Mesa community, we cannot do it effectively with inadequate funding and equipment.”

Sharpnack particularly decried the department’s level of sworn staffing, which is proposed to remain at 136 officers. That number “is not enough to meet the demands of a city like Costa Mesa,” he said in his memo.

“Insufficient staffing,” he wrote, “has overloaded my members with work and responsibilities” and could push them “to take their knowledge and experience elsewhere.”

Non-sworn positions have proved difficult to fill “due to a non-competitive contract,” Sharpnack wrote, and the department’s “dispatch center is in crisis mode, with only 50% staffing.”

Overtime also has not been properly accounted for in the budget, according to Sharpnack.

In a May 10 email to Letourneau that he included with his memo, Sharpnack wrote that he’s concerned the budget does not adequately fund needed purchases such as replacements for aging, run-down police vehicles and a new mobile command vehicle that the department could use for large-scale events, extended operations and emergency responses.

“I have never asked for equipment we do not need,” Sharpnack wrote in the email. “But by the same token, we are not getting the equipment we need.”

In short, he wrote in his memo, the budget “is unrealistic and has the potential for significant impacts on both the Police Department and public safety in general.”

The proposed spending plan could change in coming weeks, but the council is expected to adopt a budget June 18.

Staff writer Julia Sclafani contributed to this report.

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