HERMOSA BEACH — Property owners may be asked to pay a special tax for police, fire and paramedic services, and the Police and Fire departments may come under the direction of a single public safety director if the City Council approves two proposals submitted this week.
The council gave conceptual approval to a ballot measure proposed by the Police Department that would create a special property tax, tentatively set at $182 a year for each dwelling unit in the city. The measure, if formally approved by the council at its next meeting, will appear on the ballot in June.
Meanwhile, in an effort to cut costs in the Police and Fire departments, City Manager Gregory Meyer proposed that the council abolish the police and fire chief positions and create a director of public safety to oversee both departments.
The reshuffling of duties could save the city thousands of dollars and could begin as early as July, according to a report prepared by Meyer. The council directed Meyer to study the idea further and to draft a specific proposal for the change.
The proposals are part of ongoing efforts to cut costs and develop new sources of revenue. In the past few months, the council has approved more than $200,000 in cuts, including the elimination of three positions in the Police Department.
The city has been without a permanent fire chief since Ronald Simmons resigned last July, and there is no qualified candidate within the 17-man department for the job, Meyer said. A full-time fire chief would cost the city $77,650 a year in salary and benefits, he said.
Chief Could Be Promoted
Police Chief Frank Beeson, whose five-year tenure with the city has been marred by two suspensions for being intoxicated while on duty, said after the council meeting Tuesday that he had not considered the public safety proposal and did not know how he would fit into the picture if the police chief position were abolished.
City officials said there were rumors at City Hall this week that the proposal was designed to force Beeson out, but Mayor Jack Wood said Wednesday that, if anything, the proposal would probably result in a promotion for the police chief.
"It has nothing to do with Beeson's performance. It is strictly to save money," Wood said. "I assume he would be the man who would end up running the place."
Wally Moore, who heads the police officers' association, said the 34-officer department has taken no formal position on the proposal to create a public safety director, but he said the association would stand behind Beeson if he sought the job.
Problems 'Behind Him'
Last March, shortly after Beeson was suspended for the second time, a majority of the officers in the association voted that they had no confidence in the police chief. However, Moore said this week that Beeson, who checked himself into an alcohol recovery program after the suspension, now enjoys the full support of the department.
"Those problems are well behind him," Moore said. "We are totally supportive of his administrative capability. There was never any question as to his professional abilities."
The proposed ballot measure would require approval by two-thirds of the voters. The Police Department estimates that the new tax would provide about $1.6 million in revenue a year. Currently, combined expenditures for police, fire and paramedic services in the city total $3.6 million, about half of which comes from property taxes.
Beeson, who acknowledged that it would be difficult to persuade voters to voluntarily increase taxes, said the city's financial problems have hit the Police Department very hard. He said the department has lost seven of its 41 positions to budget cuts since he became chief five years ago.
"It is the only alternative available to us," he said. "If we go ahead with this, we would need to promote the need for such a thing."
Although several council members said they oppose the proposed tax, the council voted to have staff review the proposal and return at the next meeting with a financial analysis of the measure and several variations of how it could be worded on the ballot. The staff also was directed to consider a tax lower than the $182 proposed by the Police Department.
"I think people ought to have the opportunity to vote if they want an increase in the Police Department and Fire Department," said Councilman Tony DeBellis.
Councilman John Cioffi noted that police, fire and paramedic services cost the city twice what it collects each year in property taxes. "Something has to give," he said.