Millbrae will begin negotiating to contract with the Sheriff’s Office for police services — a decision that could save the city $1.1 million to $2 million annually but that split the opinion of those at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
San Bruno and Millbrae currently share Neil Telford, who acts as police chief for both cities until Nov. 18 when he will return to San Bruno full time. On Tuesday, Millbrae official voted 3-2, with councilmembers Paul Seto and Nadia Holober dissenting, to begin negotiating a contract for services to be provided by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office. The vote came after more than two hours of discussion with community input that raised concerns about adequate staffing, volunteers and the future for non-sworn employees.
The timing of the decision was another topic that split those in attendance. Both Holober and Seto advocated for waiting until the newly elected council took office before the end of the year to make the decision.
“I’m voting no because it goes against the overwhelming majority of our community,” Holober said.
Others on the council disagreed.
“We have to make a decision and sadly, I don’t think we have enough facts,” said Councilwoman Gina Papan, who added Tuesday’s decision allows for negotiations to start so remaining questions can be answered.
Mayor Dan Quigg and Vice Mayor Marge Colapietro both pointed to the city’s financial challenges as a reason the sheriff’s proposal made sense. Quigg added many of the expressed concerns and questions were answered Tuesday before the vote.
For example, Undersheriff Carlos Bolanos said the plan includes positions for all the department employees — sworn and non-sworn, that can be tweaked to accommodate the city’s robust volunteer program, and the city can maintain any property it would like. Items like vehicles and other equipment to be used through the new partnership will result in a credit toward the upstart costs, he said.
The city’s current annual budget for the department is $4.258 million. When the budget is changed to include vehicles, safety equipment, overhead costs and other costs, the annual budget is raised to $7.27 million. Should the city want to maintain its own department, Telford suggested increasing staffing levels by 2.5 full-time equivalent employees — a cost of $410,000 annually — that would raise the number of employees to 32 FTEs.
Advocates for maintaining an independent department questioned the rush to make a choice while also noting the additional cost seemed minimal.
“We should not risk the safety of our residents for a $410,000 deficit,” said resident Joe Chen.
Chris Co, special services coordinator for Millbrae police, asked the city to consider maintaining the current department staffing adding only a full-time chief and slowly building to the preferred levels. She also suggested asking the city’s electorate for money through a joint safety assessment that would support both the police and fire departments. Co’s suggestion was one Telford couldn’t recommend.
He described the city’s current staffing level as being critical.
The sheriff’s proposal included 15.98 FTEs including Millbrae’s own police chief. The $3.5 million plan allows for Millbrae’s sworn personnel to be accepted into the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office after a background check. The proposal calls for eliminating a police captain/commander/lieutenant position, cutting in half the number of sergeants and reducing the number of officers and deputies from 14 to eight, according to Telford. It adds a records clerk but does not discuss a crime analyst, special service coordinator or communications/records manager. Most non-sworn personnel would be transferred to similar positions.
During recent community meetings, a number of individuals expressed concerns about the difference in staffing levels between the proposals.
Millbrae, as a stand-alone agency, needs additional employees to cover shifts when illnesses and vacations come up. The Sheriff’s Office, which is much larger, has enough employees to backfill those without additional employees, according to Telford.
For the sake of comparison, the city asked the Sheriff’s Office to revise the proposal to include a full-time supervisor for all shifts and add an additional deputy for Friday and Saturday nights.
The increase in employees raises the proposal cost to $4.56 million. Officer Gaby Chaghouri spoke on behalf of eight officers favoring the sheriff’s proposal.
“The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office is a highly respected law enforcement organization and has always supported the citizens of Millbrae when called upon. We feel the Sheriff’s Office will continue to serve the citizens of Millbrae,” he said.
Under the original proposal, Millbrae could save nearly $2 million or $1.1 million using the revised plan. The savings increased from original numbers because of a Tuesday decision by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors recognizing cities which contracted with it were paying twice into the future retirement costs, said Bolanos. That decision added more than $500,000 in additional savings to the plan.
Regardless of what the city does, about $1.68 million in annual costs for the department — including service contracts like red-light cameras, animal patrol and retirement options — will remain, according to Telford.
Future fiscal challenges certainly came into play during the discussion.
Just before discussing police options, Finance Director LaRae Brown provided a five-year financial forecast which shows a seven-year cumulative general fund budget gap of $7.29 million. A major portion of that gap is from the sunset of the fire assessment in 2013-14. Over three years, the end of the tax will mean a loss of $4.32 million, Brown said.