Unfunded Pension Costs Driving Huntington Beach to Become More Like Ferguson, MO
It’s been 19 months since the U.S. Department of Justice released its scathing report on the Ferguson Police Department. Chief among the DOJ’s findings: Ferguson’s law enforcement practices were “shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than public safety needs.” Nearly every policing activity – including tickets, misdemeanor fines and court fees – was seen as an income opportunity.
That model led to tension between police and citizens, disrupting families and the community. When a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, on August 9, 2014, a city balancing on a knife’s edge toppled quickly into chaos.
Now what might be called Ferguson’s worst practices have been brought to Huntington Beach.
Last month, as the Orange County Register reported, the City Council approved a plan to hire a city prosecutor to handle misdemeanors.
“A significant number of misdemeanors go unprosecuted,” City Attorney Michael Gates told the Register, adding that the prosecutor will “add a lot of teeth to our laws.”
“There will be a whole class of crimes that will now be prosecuted where the DA may not have gotten to them,” Gates said. “We will prosecute every one of them until conviction.”
This comes on the heels of a proposal pushed through the council last year to substantially raise city fees and fines. Confronting a rising price tag for compensation for police and firefighters, then councilman, now mayor, Jim Katapodis put forward the plan as a means to cover the cost, and additional police officers.
Parking in front of a handicapped ramp will now cost you $356, an incredible jump from its former cost of $55. A glass container on the beach? Skateboarding? They’ll cost you $175 each, up from $125. There are others.
It’s not entirely surprising that Katapodis’ main public policy objective has been to increase the number of law enforcement officers to pre-recession numbers. He has spent his professional career in and around law enforcement. Police and fire unions have been staunch supporters, first backing Katapodis in 2010, when he ran for City Council while still an LAPD sergeant. According to Katapodis, adding more sworn officers is essential to ensure a safe city and should come at whatever cost necessary.
But over the last few years violent crime has been falling. And suspending basic accounting – adding more officers at higher pay – has driven Huntington Beach’s finances into the red.
City Council member Erik Peterson, who voted against the fee increases, said he didn’t understand how the city can start paying salaries without knowing how much they’ll receive from the increased fees.
In fact, H.B. owes $300 million on pensions for its retired city workers. That number was high enough to warrant a 2013 Moody’s investigative review. That review didn’t lead to a downgrade, but it’s a red flag.
In H.B., the Police Department is being expanded literally at the expense of the public, setting police against residents in a struggle not for public safety but for revenue. Critics say the mayor and City Council majority don’t even know how much revenue that parasitic system will generate. It’s equally clear they haven’t considered its costs. It cost Ferguson almost everything.
Matt Smith is a graduate student at Princeton Seminary, and a Journalism Fellow at the California Policy Center in Tustin.