Lynwood votes to freeze public safety contract increases

By Jose Ivan Cazares

Contributing Writer

LYNWOOD — The City Council voted unanimously July 21 to approve its public safety contracts with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department without scheduled increases for fiscal year 2020-21.

The City Council cited the impact of COVID-19 as the primary factor behind the decision, with local tax revenue decreasing because of the pandemic. The council also objected to the rising cost of policing, even after the Sheriff’s Department recently reassigned Lynwood’s service area lieutenant, as well as a community representative officer, without replacing them, City Manager Jose Ometeotl said.

Lynwood’s contract with the Sheriff’s Department would have cost almost $12.2 million had the council improved the increase. The city’s contract with the county Fire Department would have totaled $7.7 million. During the last fiscal year, the city paid the Sheriff Department around $11.5 million and the Fire Department $7.1 million.

Many area cities are facing budget cuts due to the impact of COVID-19, which has resulted in less sales tax revenue than usual. City officials also are rethinking the size of their police budgets amid the national Black Lives Matter movement,  which is calling for local governments to reduce the amount of money spent on policing and use the additional revenue to provide more social services.

Police reform was also a consideration when it came to Lynwood’s action to freeze the public safety contract increase.

“The City Council was certainly receptive to calls to defund the police,” Ometeotl said. “What it came down to was there’s been a steady increase in the cost of policing and a decrease in the service provided.”

The contract increases are tied to incremental raises for Sheriff’s and Fire Department personnel that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors previously approved, according to a press release issued by the city. Public safety services account for 50%, about $20 million of the city’s general fund budget.

Since taking office in December 2018, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has been in a heated debate with the Board of Supervisors over the department’s funding. In late June, the county proposed reducing the Sheriff’s Department budget by $145.4 million due to an overall $935.3 million county shortfall related to COVID-19.

In late July, Villanueva characterized the Board of Supervisors’ vote to place the “Reimagine L.A” measure on the Nov. 3 ballot as an effort to defund the Sheriff’s Department. If passed, the ballot measure would shift county funds to resources for underserved communities.

The city of Lynwood hopes to exercise more control over its contract with the Sheriff’s Department with its budget action, Ometeotl said. The City Council has granted Ometeotl executive power to negotiate with the Sheriff’s Department on the public safety services the department would still provide.

City officials said those negotiations were essential to address the larger conversation around police budgets and reform.

“We’re challenging Sheriff Villanueva to help us come up with solutions,” Ometeotl said. “As the leader of the second-largest police agency in the country, I’d expect to see him at the head of the conversations [on police reform].”

Mayor Aide Castro expressed a similar sentiment during the July 21 meeting.

“It’s ridiculous in a period like this, during a time of pandemic when our own staff is taking cuts,” she said. “It’s time we have a conversation [with the county] about how the budgets are approved. We will no longer tolerate increases without a seat at the negotiating table.”

Villanueva has informed the city that the department would not negotiate and would have to reduce services to meet the approved contract amount, according to Ometeotl.

Some community members also called for a budget decrease in relation to reform during the meeting.

“We demand the city reduce law enforcement’s budget over the long term and work to eliminate police practices that ultimately make residents feel afraid and unsafe,” resident Jimena Perez said.

A year-long delay in raises would also mitigate the impact that COVID-19 has had on the city’s $88 million budget for the fiscal year, with Lynwood expecting a significant reduction in sales and gas tax revenues. To mitigate this, Ometeotl and city department heads agreed to a 5% cut in their salaries. The city is also identifying $1 million in administrative costs to cut from the budget.

To account for the contract freeze for the Fire Department, the city is considering the conversion of one of the county’s two fire stations serving Lynwood to solely provide emergency medical technician services. Ometeotl said that because the majority of fire department calls are for medical emergencies, the conversion should help balance the city’s budget.