SAN CLEMENTE — The city's police officers, faced with an uncertain future caused by potential budget cuts, launched a petition drive Thursday to help drum up community support.
"Just about every single day people come up to us, voicing their support," said Officer John Coppock, president of the San Clemente Police Officers Assn. "I believe most people want to keep their department."
Confronted with the possibility of losing up to $2 million in state funding, city officials have been looking at such cost-cutting measures as contracting out for police services with the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
Although the dismantling of the 78-member Police Department has been talked about during past city budget problems, this is the first time the police officers have taken such public steps to gain community support.
"If we do it right, it could put the issue to rest for a while," Detective R. W. (Trey) Hunt said.
Starting Saturday, off-duty Police Department employees and volunteers, working under the banner of "Local Control, Local Tradition, Local Police," will start gathering signatures at four local supermarkets between 3 and 7 p.m.
Coppock said the petition drive is in no way designed to criticize the Sheriff's Department or city officials, but to let San Clemente residents have a chance to register their support for keeping the 60-year-old department. The petitions will be delivered to the City Council sometime in September.
"We just want to make the public aware of what we're going through," he said.
Police Chief Michael L. Sorg, who started his post in early July, agreed that the uncertainty facing his officers and employees is "heart wrenching."
"Obviously, everyone is concerned," he said. "It's distressing to see that they're having to go through this turmoil."
But until the state passes a budget, City Manager Michael W. Parness said, city officials don't have "a clue" about what types of additional budget cuts might be coming, if any. Already in June, the city adopted a budget that included about $1.9 million in cuts, including the elimination of 14 municipal positions.
In an address to about 50 police officers, employees and department volunteers Thursday morning, Parness stressed that no decisions have been made about dismantling the department, despite rumors to the contrary circulating around town.
"We simply are hanging out there because of the state inaction, not knowing where to turn," he said. "You're in a tough position. We all are."
At worst, the city expects the state could divert up to $2 million in property tax and vehicle registration fees from city coffers, Assistant City Manager Paul Gudgeirsson said.
For San Clemente, which has been struggling financially in recent years with its weak sales tax base, such a cut would constitute 10% of its annual $20-million general fund operating budget, Gudgeirsson said. About $6.5 million of the budget goes toward the Police Department each year.
Among other budget options being analyzed by the city are contracting out for ambulance services, or enacting a 5% utility tax, which would raise an estimated $2.5 million.
Although a study by private consultant John Heiss about the prospects of dismantling the Police Department is still pending, officials have estimated that such a step could save between $1.3 million and $2 million.
Except for Laguna Beach, San Clemente is the only South County city that does not contract with the Sheriff's Department for police services.
Longtime resident Leon N. Aldrich is among those who want San Clemente to keep its own police department. "If we went to the Sheriff's Department, we would have the same sort of service that every other city has, nothing more, nothing less, which would be about one-fourth of what we have now," he said. "It would be a big difference."