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O.C. Police See Funding Gaps in U.S. Crime Bill

October 29, 1994|KEVIN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many of the same Orange County police chiefs who supported President Clinton's crime bill now say that the newly available federal funds might not be enough to put new officers on the streets immediately.

While Santa Ana and La Habra have already won grants to add officers to their forces, other local cities are saying they cannot afford to match the federal grant money which, under the bill's provisions, they are required to do. Cities may be obliged to pay 50% or more of the average annual salary and benefits to officers, officials said.

In Westminster, for example, Police Chief James Cook said his city may not even bother applying for a Community Oriented Policing grant at all, because the funding formula would require the city to kick in money it doesn't have.

"It's the same old federal government trick," said Cook, whose gang-prevention programs have won national recognition. "It is the federal government extending a few crumbs off the table, and they are expecting us to be thankful for that."

Already, Cook said he has had to scrap plans for a special unit of six or seven officers he had hoped to fund with crime bill money.

Under guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Justice, the city's share of hiring only three officers could come to more than $100,000 per year for the next three years, Cook said. After that, when federal funds run dry, the cities would be required to pay the full tab, or about $180,000 per year.

Knowing that, Cook said there is "a good chance" the city won't apply for a piece of the grant.

"There is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow," said Costa Mesa Police Chief David L. Snowden. "That's what happens when you get a bunch of bureaucrats, who have nothing to do with law enforcement, voting on stuff."

The funding concerns come at a critical time for Orange County's cities, which must decide by next month whether they intend to apply for the federal money under terms of the grant.

That deadline looms even as some agencies, including the Orange County Sheriff's Department, continue to express confusion over the most basic provisions of the bill: How many officers could be hired based on the federal contribution? How much will departments be required to pay in matching funds? And will cities be able to keep new officers working after the grant money runs out in 1996?

"I just got involved with this today," said Grace Denton, federal crime bill coordinator for most of Southern California. "It is very confusing. The police departments have a lot of questions. I think it's like any new program, you gotta play it by ear until you get it up and running."

Signed into law last month, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 carried the promise of putting 100,000 more police on the nation's streets within the next several years.

At least 3,000 could be hired in California, according to a report by the state Legislative Analyst's Office. But the same report also contains a plainly worded warning for local jurisdictions that might be looking to bolster their police ranks at the expense of the federal government.

"The addition of new law enforcement personnel will likely result in significant increases in the costs of the state and county criminal justice system," the report stated, "and significant short-term and long-term costs for hiring the new officers."

In Santa Ana, for example, federal funds have already been approved to help hire 15 additional officers under terms of the crime bill.

Although police and city officials say they are glad to get the money, it also means that the city will have to contribute $534,000 in the first year of the grant, $576,000 in the second year and $621,000 in the third, Lt. Robert Helton said.

"The (local matching) money is a major decision for any city," Helton said. "It's a legitimate concern. We're all aware in law enforcement of the shrinking dollars available. But these opportunities don't come along that frequently. If things hold true with finances, we'll be OK. But the economics could change drastically."

Nonetheless, Helton said the department remains committed to beefing up the 376-member force in Orange County's most crime-plagued city.

La Habra Police Chief Steven Staveley has heard the funding fears of other departments, but his department has decided to spend $408,000 over the next three years in matching funds to add five more officers to the existing 68-member force.

"Fortunately, we're in good fiscal condition and the City Council thinks this is a good idea," the chief said. "I don't think we will ever regret this decision, but there are other places that won't be able to afford this."

Fullerton is one of those towns. Police Chief Patrick McKinley, who was not supportive of the bill because of doubts about funding, said the city simply "won't be playing in this ballgame."

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