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$360 is the new fee for excessive calls to police

The Costa Mesa council explains how it arrived at the figure as it votes to impose the cost on the city's problem motels.

January 21, 2014|By Jill Cowan

Following a vote Tuesday by the Costa Mesa City Council, some motel owners in the city could find themselves wondering whether a call to the police to report rowdy guests or criminal activity is worth the $360 it could cost them for taking up officers' time.

In voting to officially set that dollar amount Tuesday night, the Costa Mesa City Council ironed out another detail of the city's "Excessive Use of Resources" ordinance, which was passed earlier this month.

The ordinance aims to recover costs from motel and hotel operators who, council members have said, essentially use police as onsite security, racking up expensive hours of work to solve problems on their property.

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Therefore, the ordinance says, lodging operators who call police to report "nuisance activities" more than an average of 0.4 times per room per month should reimburse the city. Calls alerting police to domestic violence or summoning fire or ambulance services are excluded.

Managers and owners of motels facing the council majority's ire say the ordinance will make them think twice before calling police and that this could have dire consequences in a tense situation. Others have raised concerns that the ordinance unfairly targets motels and hotels, while certain bars and apartment complexes also require a good deal of police attention.

The $360, a city staff report said, was arrived at by dividing the annual Police Department budget — about $40.2 million — by annual calls for service, minus routine patrol checks and 9-1-1 calls that were canceled, unfounded or otherwise unnecessary to log.

That yielded an initial estimate of $515 per call, from which city staff subtracted 30% to "counteract charges" for police work unrelated to responding to calls.

Councilwoman Sandy Genis said she was dissatisfied with what Assistant City CEO Rick Francis explained was more of an estimation than a scientific calculation.

Tracking the outcome of each police call would have taken massive amounts of staff time, he said, which in turn would have cost money. Costa Mesa police and city staff have in the past declined to estimate how much each call to motels costs, saying too many factors are at play.

Still, Genis said, $360 appears to be a "kind of a seat-of-the-pants number, and I want a real number."

She said the idea that only 30% of the Police Department's budget was spent on activities unrelated to actively responding to calls was further evidence that it is understaffed.

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