MOORLACH UPDATE — Kelly Thomas Reverberations — January 15, 2014

Many OC-based stories are intriguing to other California and national media outlets. This week’s verdicts in the Kelly Thomas case were national news. The Sacramento Bee’s editorial page editor, Dan Morain, provides his perspectives in the first piece below.

The death of Kelly Thomas has had a major impact on our community. Shortly after his death, many parents came to a Board of Supervisors’ meeting and pleaded with us to implement Laura’s Law. My initial research found that it would be too costly to pursue. However, as Chairman of the Commission to End Homelessness, I tasked the Commission with reviewing input from these and other constituents. The result of this process was the Commission’s recommendation to the Board of Supervisors to adopt Laura’s Law once adequate funding was identified. That sent me on a journey to Sacramento to see if Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, a tax that provides funding for certain mental health concerns, could be used to fund Laura’s Law. The big question that I was asked, and one that I had asked once myself, was “What is Laura’s Law?” The law at that time prohibited the use of Prop. 63 revenues. Last year, State Senator Darrell Steinberg, the author of Prop. 63, authored SB 585, which provides the necessary language to direct funding towards most of the costs incurred with Laura’s Law. This bill was signed by the Governor on September 9 (Admissions Day). We now have the necessary funding source for a good portion of the costs.

The County’s Health Care Agency has been directed to pursue the necessary managerial functions needed to possibly implement Laura’s Law. The County’s Mental Health Services Act Steering Committee has already approved the program and funding for the upcoming fiscal year and should have the plan finalized by March. The resolution to implement the program should be presented to the Board by May. The Board will then be funding this opportunity when we adopt our 2014-2015 annual budget in June. If approved, Laura’s Law will be available starting in July, or shortly thereafter. This would be a major policy decision for a major county. It has been stated that “approximately one out of five adolescents has a diagnosable mental health disorder, and one in four shows at least mild symptoms of depression” (see http://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-health-topics/mental-health/home.html). Laura’s Law will provide another avenue for assistance. For more, see MOORLACH UPDATE — Homelessness Review — December 19, 2013, MOORLACH UPDATE — Poised for Laura’s Law — September 8, 2013, MOORLACH UPDATE — Rebuilding Reserves — May 9, 2012, MOORLACH UPDATE — Laura’s Law Legislation — April 26, 2013, MOORLACH UPDATE — Laura’s Law — March 19, 2012, MOORLACH UPDATE — OC Register — December 27, 2011, MOORLACH UPDATE — Laura’s Law – Plus — November 22, 2011, and MOORLACH UPDATE — Voice of OC — August 10, 2011.

Newport Beach is considering outsourcing its Corona del Mar lifeguards. This story was picked up by Bloomberg News, which was then also picked up by BenefitsPro and San Francisco Gate, among others. It is the second piece below. Outsourcing certain services to reduce pension costs is a no-brainer for someone running a business in the private sector. But, in the public sector, laws are in place to make this alternative extremely difficult to implement. The city of Costa Mesa has certainly been a case study in this regard. But, legacy costs must be addressed and the Newport Beach City Council is to be applauded for their exploration of this option.

Editorial: Kelly Thomas’ life ought to count for something

The sad life and horrible death of Kelly Thomas should not be for naught.

Thomas was the mentally ill man who died after a police beating in the Orange County city of Fullerton in July 2011.

A jury acquitted two officers of all charges related to the death on Monday. We won’t second-guess the jurors who heard the evidence.

But we abhor the mental health care system that failed Thomas and people like him. Police officers, who too often are the front-line mental health care workers, need better training for dealing with mentally ill people.

The confrontation occurred like many. Officers responded to a complaint about someone prowling around cars in downtown Fullerton, and found Thomas, 37, disheveled, shirtless and untreated.

As witnesses took video – the main evidence in the trial – one of the officers held his gloved fists to Thomas’ face. Moments later six officers swarmed Thomas, who was on the ground.

“I can’t breathe,” Thomas is heard to say. He pathetically called out, “Dad, help me.”

His father, Ron Thomas, is a former sheriff’s deputy who has been Thomas’ main defender, along with Thomas’ mother. After the verdict, Ron Thomas was quoted as saying: “I’ve never seen something so bad happen to a human being and have it done by on-duty police officers.”

Unfortunately, similar situations are all too common. Too often, cops, rather than doctors or nurses, are the first people to face severely mentally ill people.

In 2011, a Sacramento officer shot and killed a man who had a history of mental illness and refused to drop a baseball bat he had been using to smash windows in Curtis Park. In October, Citrus Heights officers shot and seriously wounded a man who had been taken to a hospital on a “5150” involuntary mental-illness hold the night before.

California led the nation in the 1960s and 1970s emptying psychiatric hospitals. Since then, it has led the nation in the numbers of mentally ill people in jails and prisons.

Responding to the inhumanity of the situation, voters in 2004 approved a special tax for mental health care. That money, $1 billion a year, has helped many mentally ill people.

California has used some money for police training. More must be done. The training is expensive and time-consuming; it takes officers off their beats for about a week.

The alternative, however, can be worse, and costly. Robert Drescher, an attorney representing the person who was shot in Citrus Heights, is pursuing a lawsuit over the incident.

In Orange County, Supervisor John Moorlach is pushing the Board of Supervisors to implement Laura’s Law, named for Nevada County college student Laura Wilcox, who was shot and killed by a mentally ill man 13 years ago.

If Moorlach succeeds, Orange County judges would be empowered to decree that severely mentally ill people undergo intensive mental health care while continuing to live in their homes. Orange County would be the largest county in the state to fully embrace the law. All counties in the state should adopt it, or programs similar to it.

Kelly Thomas’ life ought to count for something. Police and policymakers should commit themselves anew to better training and improved care for the people who cannot care for themselves.

Newport Beach’s $100,000 Lifeguards Feel Pension Squeeze

By James Nash

Newport Beach, California, where four ranking lifeguards earned more than the town’s $109,677 median household income in 2012, may partially disband its municipal ocean rescue to deal with rising pension costs.

The Orange County city of 87,000, where Zillow.com says the median home value is $1.5 million, is weighing bids from other governments and private companies for lifeguard services at Corona del Mar State Beach, which the municipality patrols.

Newport Beach’s oceanfront, including the state park, draws about 1.6 million visitors a year and averages 800 rescues annually, according to bid documents. With about 14 percent of Newport Beach’s general budget going toward employee pensions, municipal lifeguards may be a luxury the town can’t afford forever, City Manager Dave Kiff said by e-mail. The home of Pacific Investment Management Co. isn’t alone, said Michael Coleman, fiscal adviser to the League of California Cities.

“The escalating cost of pensions, especially public-safety pensions — of which lifeguards are part — is putting more pressure on cities,” Coleman said by telephone. “If this continues, we’re going to see more and more cities outsourcing these functions.”

California cities from the Mexican border to the San Francisco Bay have confronted rising pension costs as they contended with post-recession unemployment and strained property- and sales-tax revenue. Local governments have struggled to support six-figure lifetime benefits for some retirees even as they cut police and fire services for city residents.

Patrol Savings

Newport Beach officials haven’t estimated the possible cost savings on patrols at Corona del Mar, Kiff said. Nor is outsourcing the work a foregone conclusion, he said.

Newport Beach’s bids were due yesterday, the day after the California Public Employees Retirement System, the pension fund for city employees, reported gains of 16.2 percent last year, its best showing in 11 years, as global stocks and private equity soared. On Jan. 9, Governor Jerry Brown proposed boosting state spending 8.5 percent this year, crediting revenue from the state’s economic recovery and from tax increases approved in 2012.

Coleman said the good news from Sacramento means little to cities struggling with pension costs. Steve Maviglio, spokesman for the union-backed Californians for Retirement Security, countered that pensions are being made a “scapegoat” for governments’ fiscal woes.

Nixon Home

Orange County, the birthplace of President Richard Nixon and where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 100,000, has been at the forefront of efforts in California to move governmental functions to private operators.

Costa Mesa, which borders Newport Beach, moved to fire 200 city employees in 2011 as part of a plan to turn over street sweeping, jails, fire protection and other functions to private companies. City Council members cited pension costs, according to an article in the Voice of OC, a nonprofit news site. The city, blocked by a judge from firing the workers, decided to seek a private operator only for the jail. The regional John Wayne Airport is considering dropping the Orange County Fire Authority in favor of the private Pro-tec Fire Services Ltd. for fire protection there. The county last year began allowing private ambulance companies to use paramedics to transfer patients between hospitals.

Fiscal Trouble

Newport Beach’s wealth masks the municipality’s self-inflicted fiscal problems, said Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, a former county treasurer whose district includes the city. Full-time lifeguards hired before November 2012 are eligible to retire with full pensions when they turn 50. The city has the highest per-capita unfunded liability among Orange County’s 34 municipalities, Moorlach said. Eight city lifeguard managers made more than $100,000 in 2012, according to compensation data on state Controller John Chiang’s website. In all, 357 of the city’s 1,234 employees were paid more than $100,000 that year, the data show.

Transferring responsibility for lifeguards on Corona del Mar State Beach would do nothing to alleviate Newport Beach’s pension burden, nor would it make much difference in the city’s total budget, said Boyd Mickley, a lifeguard captain who heads the Lifeguard Management Association, the union for the city’s 12 full-time lifeguards. The city also employs as many as 200 part-time seasonal lifeguards for about $20 an hour without retirement benefits.

“The savings they’re talking about is simply not going to make a dent in the pension deficit,” Mickley said by telephone.

Private Lifeguards

Only about 10 percent of the city’s $4 million annual budget for lifeguards goes toward Corona del Mar State Beach, and private lifeguards still would need to be paid, Mickley said. He said the city’s real agenda is to test the waters for outsourcing lifeguard services for other areas and ultimately other city functions.

Newport Beach is reviewing a range of services that could be turned over to private operators “with an eye towards 2020 or so when past decisions’ pension impacts will hit all cities very hard in California (unless something happens to change state law),” the city manager said by e-mail.

“We have been trying to make sound decisions now — without a gun to our heads — that will put us in much better stead five to 10 years from now.”

At Corona del Mar State Beach, where a strip of sand is framed by a jetty and the San Joaquin Hills rising from the ocean, a group playing beach volleyball lamented the possible end of municipal lifeguards there.

“I wonder if the qualifications would be the same as a Newport lifeguard,” said Cliff Bonner, 84, of neighboring Huntington Beach. “There would be some questions about the quality of the services vs. what we have now.”

Added Dan Hoover, 59, of Irvine: “It adds to the sense of community to have city lifeguards.”

To contact the reporter on this story: James Nash in Los Angeles at jnash24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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