The Newport Beach City Council held its first of several meetings devoted to the 2011-2012 budget on Tuesday, focusing on cuts and staffing changes within the police and fire departments. But a vocal group of lifeguard supporters failed to appear to voice concerns.
Instead, the Council listened to two hours of information about changes that could be made in the city’s safety agencies. Those changes include replacing the D.A.R.E. program with an anti-drug program that doesn’t require a sworn, gun-carrying officer as an instructor, altering the city’s police helicopter program, as well as cutting the number of full-time lifeguards.
Newport Beach Fire Chief Mike Morgan said his department, which oversees lifeguards, could reduce full-time-sworn permanent staff from 16 to eight, but because a few positions are currently vacant, the drop would be 13 to eight. He also would move a community preparation coordinator to the Junior Guards Division.
The proposed cuts to permanent guards created a stir in the community, with 1,549 people joining a Facebook Page called “City of Newport, Let the Lifeguards Stay” and creating an online petition. But despite wall posts urging residents to attend the meeting and speak out, just two people did. And Mayor Mike Henn cut off public comments at the end, telling the audience they would have seven more public meetings to make their opinions heard.
City Council members asked Morgan about high overtime costs, although he didn’t provide exact numbers. Lifeguards operations typically deal with “dynamic staffing” issues, he said, where expert guards and a lot of them are needed during busy seasons, but winters can be slow unless unexpected weather conditions come up. Morgan provided a six-year sample including last year that showed 97 percent of rescues occurred between May and September, and 99 percent occurred between April and September.
Morgan and the Council discussed what the full-time guards did in the off season when they weren’t training new guards, and Council members said that they should not be painting or doing tower maintenance but rather tasks that would take advantage of their expertise, perhaps becoming reserve police officers.
Police Chief Jay Johnson described his budget and how wanted to make $2 million in cuts and still put more “boots on the street” in part by eliminating the school D.A.R.E. program as well as positions like the public information officer, and having those sworn officers return to patrol.
The Council members asked Johnson to find a replacement program for D.A.R.E. that didn’t require a sworn officer, but which involved someone in a uniform who could work with young students.
But most of the police budget talk focused on the ABLE, or AirBorne Law Enforcement, helicopter program. This winter, Costa Mesa’s City Council voted to opt out of the program, which has been a partnership between the two cities.
That partnership traditionally worked well because of the common border between Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, Johnson said.
“Criminals don’t care about the borders,” he said. “We share the same criminals.”
Options finding new cities to partner with, taking over Costa Mesa’s share, giving a credit that city could use when they called for helicopter assistance, or finding a private company to handle helicopter calls.
Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Gardner asked if the program was necessary at all.
“Do we need ABLE,” she asked. “I get as many complaints about helicopters as I do praise.”
But Johnson said with the beaches, hills, oceanside homes and grassy areas that Newport Beach has, helicopters are invaluable.
From July 1 to Jan. 31 last year, he said, 234 arrests were made with the helicopter patrol’s help, including 164 arrests where a helicopter patrol first noticed illegal behavior on the ground.
Read our earlier stories here and here.