Harbor Patrol funding reaches possible solution

NEWPORT BEACH — About 35 years and 17 reports later, a solution to the Orange County Sheriff's Department Harbor Patrol funding issues could be taking shape.

With critics of the department's current model arguing that the its biggest funding source — Orange County's parks fund — uses too much countywide money that services too few people, county supervisors are considering whether to require the Sheriff's Department to share the burden.

In a report submitted to the board of supervisors Tuesday, county auditors took a detailed look at the funding for the Harbor Patrol, which services Newport Beach, Dana Point and Huntington Harbour.

On Tuesday the board recommended that county CEO Thomas Mauk meet with Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. The two are tasked with hashing out which duties require sworn deputies, where they're needed and where savings can identified.

The goal is to reach an agreement on partial funding from the Sheriff's Department for staffing — about $2.5 million a year.

Mauk would then report to a board subcommittee, which would make recommendations to the full board of supervisors.

"Sheriff's functions are sheriff budgets. If the sheriff needs more money, they have the opportunity to have a fair and legitimate discussion," said Supervisor Shawn Nelson. "The parks department has no obligation to pay for this stuff and shouldn't be."

Nelson's argument isn't new, but with funding and law enforcement laws changing over the last 30 years, the county found itself cornered with how to pay for patrolling the county's three harbors.

The issue's taken on more urgency since the Sheriff's Department renegotiated pay and pensions in 2001 and the county has had to contribute more into the pension fund due to the sluggish economy.

Just 10 years ago, the Harbor Patrol budget was roughly half of what it is now.

The harbor patrol cost about $12 million this past fiscal year, with more than 90% going to employee salaries, benefits and expenses. The county's park fund pays for 55%, or $6.6 million. The rest of the cost is split between the Newport Tidelands Fund ($1.8 million) and the Dana Point Tidelands Fund ($3.6 million).

What is now known as the O.C. Parks Fund was once part of the Orange County Harbor District, established in 1933.

In 1971, the county drew parks funding in with harbor funding, creating the Harbors, Beaches & Parks District. Four years later, the staffing and enforcement responsibilities were transferred to the Sheriff's Department. That worked until the late '80s, when the county had to dissolve that district and create the O.C. Parks Fund to save millions in tax revenue that would have gone back to the state.

Once that happened, and the Harbor Patrol became increasingly expensive, divisions grew on how to pay for the patrol.

Every city pays into the parks fund, with Newport Beach being the second-largest contributor after Irvine. Per capita, Newport Beach residents contribute far more than the rest of the county, the report showed.

It costs the Harbor Patrol $290,000 a year to manage the Newport's 1,200 city-owned moorings.

But Newport Beach has paid $110,000 for that service for more than 20 years and couldn't afford such a steep price jump in just one year.

A new contract with the department eases Newport Beach into the $290,000 annual cost over the next five years.

County officials suggested that Newport Beach be required to spend the money it's saving until then on benefiting the harbor.

Concluding discussions Tuesday, county supervisors seemed to be in agreement that the Sheriff's Department needs to share the financial load with the parks fund.

The auditor's report suggested phasing in costs to the Sheriff's Department — similar to what the sheriff is doing with Newport Beach in the mooring contract — to ease the strain on the department's already stretched budget.

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