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Cost of Police Force Becoming the Bottom Line for Voters : Law enforcement: City officials cite fear-inspiring sums, but supporters claim that residents would pay no more than they do now. Independent estimates fall somewhere in between.

September 27, 1992|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST HOLLYWOOD — Just ahead of the Methodist church group in June's Gay Pride parade was a police black-and-white, lights flashing and the words Hollywood Police Department emblazoned on the door. The uniformed pair inside grinned and waved to the crowd.

Although the car came from a Sun Valley prop house and the officers were just a couple of residents in rented costumes, the crowd roared. It is that cozy image of officers drawn from the community and cheered by proud neighbors that is the guiding vision for Proposition AA, a controversial ballot drive to create an independent West Hollywood police department.

The debate has been as sharp as any in the rambunctious city's history, flavored by the usual gay activism and the stirrings of an adolescent city growing up, finding its own voice and calling its own shots. But when it comes down to it, the make-or-break question is going to be whether the city can afford to replace its $8.4-million contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department at a time of recessionary cutbacks.

"We need to complete the process of our becoming a city," said Robert Pierson, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council this year and is a supporter of the initiative. "But the bottom-line issue is related to cost--whether the community feels the value of being fully independent is worth it or not. It's a question of value rather than cost."

The projected cost of a new department varies depending on who's talking. City officials cite fear-inspiring sums, but supporters claim that residents would pay no more than they do now. Independent estimates fall somewhere in between--possibly $2 million to $3 million more than now--meaning the real decision is whether adding local control is worth the price.

Since cityhood in 1984, West Hollywood has acted ambitiously to take care of its own, with rent control, gay rights, and a broad safety net of services for its poor and sick and for its Soviet emigre community. But, eight years later, the Sheriff's Department still patrols its streets, one of 42 contract arrangements with cities in Los Angeles County.

West Hollywood would be the first city in the county to establish its own police force in at least 15 years. And statewide, most new cities have stayed with contract arrangements, although a small handful have set up police departments because of unhappiness with the way they were being served.

With budget cuts this year of almost $2 million and the likelihood of still more, city officials and voters are edgy about taking on major new expenses that would spell cutbacks in existing services. Four of the five members of the City Council oppose the measure, and the fifth, Paul Koretz, has said he will support it only if it is affordable.

Both sides are keenly aware of the importance of the price tag, and their projections are miles apart.

City Hall officials have estimated that it would cost between $13.3 million and $14.6 million a year--a 60% to 75% increase--to launch a police department and build, buy or lease a station house.

That projection is based on a 150-member department, roughly the total number of Sheriff's Department employees posted in the West Hollywood station now. The city's estimate, which Public Safety Coordinator Nancy Greenstein calls conservative, envisions a department with 75 street cops, plus supervisors and civilian staff.

But West Hollywood Citizens for Better Police Protection, which gathered more than 4,500 signatures to put the proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot, contends that it would cost no more than the current $8.4-million contract to assemble a department of 54 basic patrol officers to protect the two-square-mile city.

The group, in a 57-page budget proposal, argues that only about 100 Sheriff's Department employees actually serve West Hollywood because the station is also responsible for patrolling unincorporated county land in Universal City, the Veterans Administration hospital complex in West Los Angeles, Franklin Canyon and the county-owned Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax district. The group says $8.3 million a year would replace that number as well as pay the costs of acquiring the sheriff's station through a joint effort with private investors.

Interviews with law enforcement officials, local politicians and consultants around the state suggest that the true cost lies somewhere between the two estimates.

All communities are different and exact comparisons impossible, but officials and consultants who have helped set up police departments in West Sacramento, East Palo Alto, Cathedral City and other cities said running a police force generally costs about 30% more than a contract with a county Sheriff's Department. For West Hollywood, that would mean an annual law enforcement cost of $10.9 million.

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