Contracting With OC Sheriff Means Buying Into Expensive Union Benefits

By Marc Joffe
February 28, 2017

Thirteen of Orange County’s 34 cities contract their policing services to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Contracting out services can save cities the hassles and costs of dealing with their own unionized workforces. But when Orange County cities contract with the County Sheriff, they are absorbing the high cost of OC’s unionized law enforcement.

The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS) analyzed the numbers and concluded that contract cities pay much less for police protection than those that maintain their own forces. AOCDS arrived at this conclusion by obtaining budgeted police expenditures for each city and then dividing by that city’s population.  The AOCDS found that contract cities paid an average of $195 per resident for policing versus $362 per resident for cities that had their own forces.

The contracted costs appear quite reasonable by national standards. Based on a survey of 12,000 local police departments across the country, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported an average policing cost of $279 per resident in 2013. BJS found policing costs to be higher in larger cities:  the per resident average varied from $228 in cities of 10,000-25,000 people to $391 in cities of more than one million residents.

Per resident law enforcement costs do not consider differences in crime rates and police department effectiveness. To incorporate these factors, it may be more appropriate to look at cost per clearance. A clearance occurs when a reported crime is resolved, usually by an arrest. Clearance data is collected by the FBI and included in California’s Open Justice database. On a cost per clearance basis, Orange County contract cities still pay less on average, but the difference is no longer statistically significant. This calculation also highlights just how expensive policing is in Orange County: resolving a single crime costs, on average, over $95,000.

AOCDS’s calculations with our additions are shown below:

So, regardless of whether cities contract or operate their own police departments, they pay a high bill for law enforcement.

We reviewed contracts signed by several Orange County communities with the County Sheriff and found that they included steep personnel costs. Rates varied slightly across the cities we reviewed, but these 2016 personnel rates charged to the cities of Laguna Niguel and Aliso Viejo are representative:


When benefits are included, the cost of employing a sergeant becomes much higher. Because many employees are eligible to retire in their fifties at 90% of salary, the county must make large pension fund contributions on their behalf. According to the most recent Orange County Employees Retirement System (OCERS) Actuarial Valuation, pension contributions for law enforcement employees range up to 63% of salary, with most of the contributions being borne by the County as opposed to employees.These high personnel rates appear to be driven by the attractive salaries and benefits offered by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Right now, a Sergeant’s base salary can reach $126,090 per year, and this maximum will rise to $134,000 per year in 2019 under the current contract.Relative to 2008, the rate for a Lieutenant was 20% higher in 2016; for a Sergeant, the increase was 18%. On an annual basis, personnel cost increases were a not unreasonable 2%.

Under the AOCDS contract, the County contributes $1174 per month to each employee’s health coverage rising to $1395 per month in 2019. The County also funds retiree health benefits of up to $250 per month for officers hired before 2007.

A 2015 Orange County Civil Grand Jury report found irregularities in the sheriff’s Medical Benefits Trust Fund, which is operated by the union rather than the county. The Grand Jury concluded that the benefit trust was being used to provide medical benefits to union officials not employed by the County, and to improperly subsidize retiree health benefits. The County Executive did not fully concur with the Grand Jury’s findings, but agreed to negotiate changes to the Trust arrangement in future bargaining.

Despite the costly benefits offered by the Sheriff’s department, it may be preferable to operating a standalone police department or creating regional law enforcement authorities. As long as public safety unions control employment conditions, police officers are likely to see generous health and retirement benefits wherever they work in southern California. A quick review of MOU’s for lower cost Orange County cities as well as peer cities in neighboring counties show that all offered a 3% per year pension formula.

In summary, contracting with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is not cheap in absolute terms, but may be a better alternative than operating a local police force. Unless smaller cities can find ways to provide police services without funding expensive defined benefit pension plans, contracting may still be their best option. Until state and local officials implement reforms that reduce the taxpayer cost of retirement benefits (such as the use of defined contribution, 401k-style plans), the cost of policing in Orange County and throughout California will remain very, very high.

Marc Joffe is the Director of Policy Research for the California Policy Center.

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