By Chris Hamm
The past four years that I have served on City Council have gone by quickly, and it continues to be an honor to serve the residents. During that time, your City Council continues to take steps to protect the well-being of our residents. I’d like to elaborate on the two most important areas on which we have taken action to protect our city.
The first priority is public safety. Our community has been under duress from many different forces, which pose a broad array of challenges. These include Prop 47’s approval last year, the influx of short-term lodging units and boarding house uses, the opening of the outlets and other commercial centers, and the pending closure of our hospital. In many ways, many of these challenges and questions always comes back to a discussion on available resources and how to best deploy them.
Before we go further into this discussion, I feel it’s important to discuss our budget and priorities as a city. Nearly 50 percent of our operating budget comes from property tax, which is why I embrace a “residents first” perspective. In contrast, sales tax revenue only represents 16 percent of our annual budget, while the remainder is made up of various taxes, fees and charges. Residents are the backbone of our economy. This is why, while other cities were cutting vital services during the recession, San Clemente was able to maintain status quo. A key priority for this City Council is to always present a balanced budget to its residents and not take on burdensome debt obligations that threaten our long-term fiscal health.
During my time on Council, we have doubled our ambulance service and reduced response times and increased availability of fire and EMS services without significantly increasing the contract expense. With the announced closure of our hospital, the city is applying for a grant to increase Engine 50 to a full paramedic unit, giving us a total of three paramedic units in town. Once the grant is approved, it will go into effect this year.
A critical element to public safety is our Sheriff’s Department. From a city perspective, there are two things that make the sheriff’s contract very difficult to regulate. The first is that for the past few years, the sheriff’s contract proposed almost a 10 percent year-over-year increase in costs just to maintain our current level of service. Faced with these steep service increases and despite my concerns, the majority of Council elected to leave two vacant sheriff deputy positions unfunded to help mitigate the contract increases. A 10 percent yearly contract increase is difficult to manage because our city revenue doesn’t come close to increasing at the same rate. Fortunately, through careful and extensive work, we are usually able to bring that number down to a manageable figure. Being that public safety is the number one priority, I often hear residents ask, “Why don’t we take money from some of the many capital improvement projects and spend it on more deputies?” Most of our capital improvement projects (sewer, water, roads, etc.) are paid for by fees that were collected for a specific use and cannot be spent in any other way. For example, $1 million collected in our sewer fund cannot be spent on new sheriff’s deputies; it must be spent on sewer-related projects.
The second is our lack of direct representation over the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff’s Department is overseen by the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Unlike the Fire Authority, the city of San Clemente does not have a direct representative to oversee how the Sheriff’s Department is managed. As a community, we must rely on Lisa Bartlett, our South County Board of Supervisors’ Representative, to manage it for us. In contrast, our contract for fire services has a maximum increase of 4.5 percent per year and our mayor, Bob Baker, represents us on the board for the OCFA. Additionally, our in-house city services only see an annual budget increase of 3 percent.
Fortunately, with a better financial operating position this year, we are able to address the public safety concerns by increasing our contract over 7 percent and using a portion of those funds to fill a vacant deputy position as well as a detective and crime prevention officer. I remain hopeful that we can add back the second deputy position in our next budget cycle.
Another important public safety issue is the exponential increase of short-term lodging units including vacation rentals, sober living homes, mental health facilities, hotels, short-term apartment rentals, boarding houses and bed and breakfasts. A few weeks ago, with a 4-1 vote, the Council approved regulation that will properly regulate these uses and, after a brief amortization period, will ensure they only exist in appropriate areas for future years to come.
A discussion on public safety, of course, would not be complete without a big thank you to our Marine Safety Department and Public Safety officers that risk their lives every day to keep us safe. If you have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out via email at email@example.com.
Chris Hamm is a City Councilman in San Clemente and was elected to his position in 2012. He served as mayor in 2015.
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