SANTA ANA — The Orange County Board of Supervisors, desperate for money to balance its budget, voted Tuesday to consider charging cities every time a health officer shows up to inspect a hotel or a sheriff's deputy is called to talk a gunman into giving up.
Despite opposition from city representatives, the supervisors voted unanimously to press ahead with plans for charging cities for those services and others, which they now receive free. And some of the services are so sensitive or expensive that city governments will have little choice but to pay the county's price, city officials complained.
Hostage negotiation services, for instance, could soon be provided only for a fee. Same for the Sheriff's Department helicopter support unit and the hazardous-device squad, which defuses bombs.
County budget officials will study how much each service costs and report back to the board in 90 days with recommended price tags.
"If you have the bomb, you're going to have to pay for it," said Ronald S. Rubino, the county's budget director. "It's great that we used to be able to do that for free, and we wish we weren't in this situation, but we are."
Although those services cost the county money, historically they have been provided at no charge to city governments. The current budget climate, however, has caused county officials to reconsider that practice.
The supervisors also voted Tuesday to increase charges to cities that contract with the county for some of their operations, such as law enforcement and land planning.
"There's no such thing as a free service," Supervisor Don R. Roth said. "We're in a financial bind in this county."
No one disputes that point. Current estimates suggest that the county's shortfall in the coming budget could top $65 million. The new fees, if approved by the supervisors, could raise about $3 million, Rubino said.
In addition to the law-enforcement fees being considered, cities could also soon be required to pay for a grab bag of other services that they now receive free. Hotel inspections, gang prevention and even the sale of wiping rags--used in gas stations and machine shops--are among the other areas that the county could soon begin charging for.
But city representatives complained Tuesday that the proposed fees represent a breach of contract with the local governments that receive the services.
"We entered into it (the law enforcement contract with the county) in good faith," Dana Point Mayor Mike Eggers complained to the board. Dana Point is one of three new South County cities that has been relatively free of budget woes, in large part because they contract with the county for many of their services. But, Eggers added, it is as if the county now is saying, " 'You bought the car, now you have to buy the tires, you have to buy the engine, you have to buy the windows.' "
Services such as the sheriff's helicopter patrol or the bomb squad are best provided on a countywide basis, city and county representatives agreed, because it makes little sense for cities to duplicate efforts.
Bomb squads require sophisticated equipment and special training, as do helicopter units. As a result, there are only four cities that have their own helicopter patrols. The Sheriff's Department is the only agency in Orange County with a bomb squad, said Assistant Sheriff Dennis LaDucer.
"The decision was made a long time ago that it made sense to provide these services on a regional basis, and the cities went along with that," said Bill Hodge, executive director of the League of California Cities, Orange County division. "To say that we ought to have 29 different bomb squads is lunacy."
Hodge and other city representatives said that county and city residents already pay for the services through their property taxes. Asking the cities to pay for them again, Hodge said, "is like buying the cow twice."
Irvine Mayor Sally Anne Sheridan agreed, and she mischievously suggested that the board should only impose the new fees if it agrees to lower property taxes at the same time. Board members did not respond.
Although Tuesday's action does not commit the board to approving fees for the various services, several members said later that they are inclined to support some increases. The matter will return to the supervisors in 90 days, along with recommendations for which fees should be raised and how much.
"The cost of doing business today, whether it's going to the grocery store or running county government, is going up," said Supervisor Thomas F. Riley. "That's just the way things are going."
County May Charge Cities New Fees
Orange County is considering charging cities for many services that are currently free. Here are some of the services for which budget officers are assigning fees:
Sheriff's Department Fraud / check detail Hazardous device (bomb) squad Helicopter patrol Hostage negotiation Tactical support team (called SWAT team in some places)
Probation Gang awareness Juvenile diversion
Health Care Agency Emergency drinking water
County Health Officer (acting as city health officer Housing investigation / inspections Farm labor housing inspections Sale of wiping rags
General Services Agency Engineering support Source: County Administrative Office