Cash strapped and troubled with shortfalls, the city of San Carlos is considering outsourcing its police force:
The city of San Carlos, facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit brought on by the recession and rising employee costs, is considering a money-saving measure that is all but unheard of in the Bay Area – dissolving its Police Department and outsourcing the job of law enforcement.
After 85 years of having its own police force, supporters of the idea say, it’s time for San Carlos to hand the job either to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office or to neighboring Redwood City to eliminate nearly two-thirds of next year’s $3.5 million deficit.
But critics say having an outside agency handle local law enforcement would cost “the city of good living” control over its affairs. Dissolving the 32-member force, they maintain, would be a rickety fix for years of bad budget decisions.
San Carlos is not a high-intensity policing assignment. The number of violent crimes in an average year is 27, and there have been only three homicides in the city of 28,000 over the past decade.
Still, “we certainly do have issues that are of concern to local residents who are hoping to maintain their quality of life and the property values here,” City Manager Mark Weiss said.
“We certainly recognize that and respect that,” Weiss said. “And yet the fact of the matter is, the city does not have adequate revenue to maintain the current business model to provide municipal service.”
Deputies as cops
There’s plenty of precedent in the Bay Area for outside agencies policing small cities. Dublin’s police officers are Alameda County sheriff’s deputies. In Contra Costa County, the sheriff patrols Danville, Lafayette, Oakley and Orinda. Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputies handle crime in Cupertino, Los Altos Hills and Saratoga.
However, none of those cities ever had its own police force. Locally, only Sonoma, which dissolved its police department in 2004 and turned to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department to save money, has ever done what San Carlos is considering.
“There’s no question in my mind that this is the wave of the future,” said Redwood City Mayor Jeff Ira. “We all want to have our domain and protect our own domain, and that’s what really kept us from doing a lot of these things many years ago. Unfortunately, it’s the crisis that brought us here.”
In May, the San Carlos City Council held a special session to review policing proposals by the sheriff’s office and Redwood City police. The city is expected to decide this month whether to disband the force and select one of the agencies.
“We have two attractive offers from two professional organizations,” said Mayor Randy Royce, who believes the city should scrap its force. “I am just elated to have two great proposals. We can’t go wrong either way.”
Raising funds proposed
But Ken Castle, who leads San Carlos’ largest neighborhood watch group, said having an outside agency police the city in a “work-for-hire arrangement really abrogates that kind of localized control.”
He said San Carlos should consider charging fees for recreational use and installing parking meters downtown to help raise the $2 million a year that outsourcing police services could save the city.
The sheriff’s department and Redwood City are also experiencing budget cuts, and choosing either would be like “jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire,” Castle said. “Tossing this over the fence in a bidding war, I think, is absolutely the wrong way to do this.”
The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office already patrols Woodside and Portola Valley. Sheriff Greg Munks noted that his agency’s SWAT team, Office of Emergency Services and air squadron are based in San Carlos.
San Carlos and Redwood City police routinely work side-by-side, said Redwood City police Officer Mike Reynolds, president of that city’s Police Officers Association. San Carlos officers are part of the Redwood City SWAT team.
“Criminals don’t care where jurisdictional boundaries are,” Reynolds said. “They’re not going to stop at a line drawn across El Camino Real because it says San Carlos.”
San Carlos, which has cut its budget for 11 years in a row, is also considering outsourcing its fire and parks maintenance services. Police and fire now make up 60 percent of the city’s $26 million budget.
The San Carlos Police Officers Association objects to any outsourcing and is blaming city officials for failing to manage budget challenges.
“It’s a bad idea, because they’re losing their department. It will never be the same as being policed by your own department,” said Officer Gilbert Granado, president of the San Carlos police union.
All San Carlos officers would also be offered full-time, higher-paying jobs with the sheriff’s office, which now has 462 deputies, officials said. There is no such guarantee if San Carlos chooses to go with the 87-member Redwood City force.
Keeping the city’s identity
Regardless of which agency would handle San Carlos police services, the officers would keep the city’s identity by driving the same San Carlos police cars and wearing the same uniforms. Indemnity agreements would hold either the county or Redwood City liable.
San Carlos City Councilman Matt Grocott said he supports the idea of a joint powers authority under which the city would maintain its police force but partner with another agency.
Munks, however, said he didn’t believe a regional approach would be feasible. “That would be way too confusing,” the sheriff said.
I say: Better yet – disband the entire police force, cut local fees and taxes accordingly, and let the people vote with their dollars whom to purchase protective services from!