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To cut costs, Half Moon Bay police may merge with county or nearby city

By Jamie Hansen | 13 Dec 2010

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The Half Moon Bay Police Department's future is uncertain as the city is forced to make big budget cuts. (Photo: Jamie Hansen)

This article was reported and written by Jamie Hansen and Paul Jones of The Peninsula Press staff.

Related News: San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office benefits from replacing city police

Law enforcement in Half Moon Bay won’t be the same next year.

That’s because city officials need to cut spending by as much as $1.2 million, and the police department consumes 40 percent of the budget. Now, the city is looking to outsource for policing, and the choice comes down to contracting with the San Mateo County sheriff or partnering with a nearby city.

The sheriff’s department, fresh from taking over police services for cash-strapped San Carlos, appears eager to make a bid. City leaders in Pacifica and San Mateo have not ruled out the possibility of a partnership, but are awaiting more details.

Those details will be coming soon. Since the failure of Measure K, which would have raised the sales tax by a half-cent, Half Moon Bay officials have been rushing to prepare a request for proposals for police services, in time to balance next year’s budget. ”We’re taking a new look at how we do business,” Mayor Marina Fraser said.

The sheriff’s department Option

Dissatisfaction with law enforcement provided by the sheriff’s department was one of the reasons Half Moon Bay incorporated in 1959, according to Interim City Manager Michael Dolder,

“There’s some irony in this,” Fraser said. “It’s a little sad that, 50 years later, we’re looking at disbanding our police.”

But Sheriff Greg Munks said he’s confident that if Half Moon Bay pursues a contract with his agency, it would see improvements in some areas of service for a lower cost. “I know we can save them money … and we can provide a higher level of service than they’re getting now,” he said.

For example, Munks said, the city currently must take officers off of patrol to investigate cases. He said the sheriff’s department could instead assign detectives in Half Moon Bay when necessary.

Regional policing isn’t a new idea. It’s common for cities to contract with sheriff’s departments in Southern California; Lt. Rick Mouwen with the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department said his agency provides services to 42 cities and communities. In San Mateo County, the sheriff contracts with Woodside, Portola Valley and, most recently, San Carlos.

San Carlos Interim City Manager Jeff Maltbie said his city, just a month into its relationship with the sheriff’s department, is pleased so far. “The public has given us a lot of compliments,” he said. “When [the sheriff] came in, they hit the ground running.”

Over the years, several of Half Moon Bay’s neighbors — such as El Granada, Moss Beach and Montara — have remained unincorporated and relied on the sheriff’s department. For the most part, those communities seem satisfied with the services they’ve received.

Woodside Town Manager Susan George said the town has contracted with the sheriff since its incorporation in 1956, and has enjoyed the benefits a larger law enforcement agency offers. When “something big” happens, the sheriff sends in additional help at no extra charge. But she said the community sometimes feels a “bit of sticker shock” at the cost of service when it renegotiates with the department every three years.

Cost could be one of the major drawbacks for Half Moon Bay in returning to the sheriff, according to Dolder and Fraser. A sheriff deputy’s salary is roughly 18 percent higher than that of a Half Moon Bay officer — so savings could be less than they are in urban cities such as San Carlos, where officers earn wages more comparable to those of deputies.

The City Option

Dolder suggested that one benefit of partnering with a nearby city would be maintaining the mentality of a small police department, with its appointed, rather than elected, officials. By contrast, the sheriff’s department is a regional authority that answers to the county government and the sheriff is elected by the county’s voters.

Pacifica and San Mateo police department officials declined to discuss the benefits or drawbacks of a possible partnership with Half Moon Bay, explaining that they were waiting to see what services Half Moon Bay requests.

Pacifica Police Chief Jim Saunders did say that when nearby towns have joined police forces, they’ve usually been small communities similar to Half Moon Bay and its neighbors: Monte Sereno and Los Gatos in Santa Clara County, for instance, and the “Twin Cities Police Authority” of Corte Madera and Larkspur in Marin County.

Looking Forward

Whatever the outcome, the era of autonomy for Half Moon Bay law enforcement seems to be over.

And nothing’s certain about a new arrangement until Half Moon Bay receives actual bids. Dolder and Violett are in the process of crafting a request for proposals, which they hope to have finished when Dolder’s position ends in January. According to Dolder, they plan to request a specific level of service, and then see which bidder will provide the cheapest price.

“It’s all about service level; what’s your standard,” Dolder said.

Interim Police Chief Lee Violett anticipates that Half Moon Bay will experience a reduced level of service in order to make the needed savings.

The police department is already stretched thin, with just eight officers, four sergeants and two administrators. Violett himself is employed at only 60-percent-time. He anticipated that the city’s emergency response capacity would stay the same, while school resource officers, neighborhood watch, and reports and records would most likely be cut.

“[Law enforcement] probably won’t continue to be as engaged with the community on the new terms,” Violett said. “You won’t have much of a chance to talk with your local police chief.”

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