NEWPORT BEACH — The police and fire chiefs on Tuesday proposed a series of austerity measures to the City Council that would total up to $3.4 million combined.
If implemented, the departments’ 2011-12 fiscal year budgets could outsource the city’s police helicopter, eliminate or replace the school D.A.R.E. program, reduce the number of full-time lifeguards, and phase out one of the city’s three rescue boats.
But even with the proposed $1.5 million in cuts to the Fire Department and $1.9 million to police, the city would add police officers to the street and would preserve all of the firefighter jobs through reorganization.
“This plan will improve public safety,” Police Chief Jay Johnson said at Tuesday’s City Council study session.
He plans to move officers from desk jobs onto patrol, adding six people onto the streets now and six in the future. The Police Department is actually hiring.
In the Fire Department, Chief Mike Morgan proposed reducing the full-time lifeguard staff during the off-season by five — from 13 to eight — and laying off about five office workers in other parts of the department.
The staffing, Morgan said, “needs to be able to move fluidly with ocean and weather conditions.”
Morgan’s proposal relies on some full-time lifeguards to stay on staff, but to work only during the peak warm months.
Mayor Mike Henn said he was concerned that the city wouldn’t have someone with their level of experience to train the part-time guards.
Council members said they received many letters from people concerned that reducing the full-time lifeguards would compromise safety on the beaches or would hurt the Junior Lifeguard program.
Under Morgan’s proposal, which City Manager Dave Kiff supports, the Fire Department’s community volunteer trainer would fill one of the Junior Lifeguard positions previously filled by a full-time guard.
But Lifeguard Management Assn. President Brent Jacobsen said the volunteer coordinator wasn’t qualified enough to train the Junior Guard staff.
“We’re not going to have those outstanding Junior Lifeguard instructors,” he said.
Morgan also proposed phasing out one of the three rescue boats that the city operates.
Based on the reaction from the council members, Newport will likely continue some sort of helicopter patrols, but the program may not be owned and operated by the city.
Airborne Law Enforcement, a helicopter program that Newport shares with Costa Mesa, costs the city about $1.2 million annually. The Costa Mesa City Council voted in February to stop funding its portion.
Johnson said the city could afford to operate on its own for the next year, but after that it would be unsustainable because of the high reserve balance the city would have to keep for maintenance and equipment replacement.
The options Johnson presented were: to continue the program without Costa Mesa; hire a private company; or contract with another agency. Other agencies included the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Huntington Beach Police.
None of the council members appeared ready to abandon helicopter patrols, but they varied on how much the city should actually control the program. They asked Johnson to come back with more details about the options.
“I do not want to be in the helicopter business,” said Henn.
To officially participate in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, Newport Beach has to have a dedicated police officer, but Johnson said the department cannot afford the $175,000 annual expense.
“When I look at the D.A.R.E. program versus ‘boots on the streets,’ obviously from my perspective I’m going to go with boots on the streets,” he said.
Council members suggested replacing D.A.R.E. with a similar drug education program, perhaps with a uniformed police employee.
Both police and fire will likely shed vacant positions to save money they currently have budgeted. In recent years, the city has held back from hiring for some spots that become open because of regular attrition.
“We need to continue to downsize,” said Kiff.
On Monday, the city manager said that Newport Beach planned to finish the fiscal year with a $2.2-million surplus, but in order to stay in the black, Kiff said he would need to cut between $7.5 million and $8 million in spending for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
The cuts are needed to make up for increasing pension costs, negotiated salary increases and other non-employee costs such as street repairs, Kiff said Monday.
The risk of a reduction in budgeted (but not necessarily filled) sworn police officers — from 149 to 136 — is fewer people to respond to disasters.
“We have less officers to call on in those major situations,” Johnson said Tuesday.