Fresno County sheriff stops Fig Garden deputy discount

The Fresno BeeMarch 2, 2013 

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims

The Fresno County Sheriff's Office has been providing property owners in a Fig Garden neighborhood extra deputies and added firepower at a cut rate, according to county financial statements.

Residents in the well-heeled central Fresno community pay higher taxes for the better treatment, but their payments have fallen short of what the perk costs by more than $400,000 over the past five years, county documents show.

The loss, while easily absorbed into the sheriff's $162 million budget, represents money that could have gone to other public-safety programs, such as deputy patrols elsewhere. This has one county supervisor asking why the Sheriff's Office hasn't charged more for the extra protection.

"It's inappropriate for taxpayers to have to subsidize the cost of a private-security enhancement," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said. "There have been significant cuts to other services. These dollars could have helped in other ways."

At least one other contract for special protection that the Sheriff's Office manages also has run in the red, according to county documents.

Sheriff Margaret Mims has recently scaled back service to the Fig Garden residents in light of a county report identifying her higher costs. She eliminated one of three deputy positions in the neighborhood.

But Mims was reluctant to make the cut, maintaining that her costs for special protection are not what county administrators report.

According to Mims, the Fig Garden Police Protection District should be charged for the salaries of the extra deputies who serve it, not for the overhead that county administrators have factored into her costs, such as vehicle wear and tear, utilities and county legal services.

"There's no secret. I have a problem with the administrative costs," Mims said. "This is charging for services that are going to exist anyway ... I feel like we're gouging our public."

County policy, however, requires all departments to bill contracted services at county-calculated rates, with few exceptions. Only the Board of Supervisors can approve otherwise.

Officials in the County Administrative Office said the sheriff should have raised rates in the Fig Garden contract five years ago when county reports identified her costs going up.

"That renewal was not coming back to the Board (of Supervisors). That renewal should have come back," County Administrative Officer John Navarrette said.

Between January 2008 and last October -- when Mims brought her rates in line with the county-calculated costs -- the gap between what Mims charged the Fig Garden district and what county administrators say her costs were totaled $431,000, according to county documents.

Mims said that money wouldn't have gone far if she had used it outside the special protection area. Investing it in Fig Garden, she said, allowed her to benefit from an extra deputy sheriff who was partly funded with neighborhood money and sometimes worked outside the district boundaries.

"Just because I pay the bureaucracy I lose a deputy sheriff position," Mims said.

Borgeas, who called the sheriff's departure from county rules "troublesome," became aware of the situation only when he heard that the Fig Garden district had lost a position.

"County departments can't pick and choose which fee-structure rules to follow," he said.

Borgeas joined the Board of Supervisors in January, after the sheriff already had raised her rates. His district includes Fig Garden.

Many residents in the neighborhood are disappointed that their contract rates have gone up and services have gone down.

"It's always nice to have more protection," said Dean Alexander, who sits on the board of the Fig Garden Police Protection District.

Like the sheriff, Alexander said he doesn't like that the neighborhood is being billed for so much of the county's overhead.

Residents now are charged about $97 an hour for a deputy sheriff instead of the roughly $67 an hour they were charged last year.

Alexander said neighbors always are exploring alternative ways to get service less expensively, and private security, he said, remains on the table.

The special protection district was formed decades ago to provide around-the-clock policing in the neighborhood. The district, roughly bounded by Shaw, Palm, Maroa and Dakota avenues, includes a long reach of Christmas Tree Lane and represents some of the priciest homes in Fig Garden.

As an unincorporated community (within the city limits of Fresno), the Sheriff's Office also provides baseline service there.

About 750 property owners pay into the special district: $343 a year for homeowners and $450 a year for business owners, according to district officials.

Retired county Supervisor Susan Anderson, who preceded Borgeas, said keeping property owners in the Fig Garden district happy is probably in the sheriff's best interests.

"The tax base from the more valuable property in the county islands is important to the sheriff's budget," she said.

The Sheriff's Office manages a handful of other contracts for special protection in the county beyond Fig Garden, though none is quite the same.

For example, Central Unified School District contracts for a lower level of services from the Sheriff's Office at similar rates. Like Fig Garden, rates recently went up with the county's updated cost report. One of two deputy positions was eliminated.

Sheriff's officials said rates charged to the school district during the past five years were similarly below county-calculated costs. The extent of the discrepancy was not immediately available.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6679, or @KurtisInValley on Twitter.

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