DEL MAR — City Council unanimously approved a new five-year contract with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, immediately after agreeing to take the next step to find other viable options for law enforcement in the county’s smallest city. For years city officials have discussed researching alternatives to save money in pensions and police services. They eventually gave the task to the Finance Committee, which reported on the latter at the Jan. 28 meeting.
Jim Benedict, chairman of that subcommittee, noted that while the general fund has grown by 2 percent during the past seven to 10 years, the contract with the Sheriff’s Department has increased simultaneously by 5.5 percent.
Benedict said there is no indication that will change – and it doesn’t under the new agreement.
“The sheriff’s contract is really not sustainable to the growth of our city and that, financially, is a very big concern,” he said.
Benedict said as he researched the issue, he discovered it’s not just about the money.
“When we started out in this project we were really looking at this from a financial point of view and it became evident very early on … that there (were) concerns about service levels,” he said. “People are concerned in the neighborhoods that we don’t see anybody.”
Del Mar has contracted with the Sheriff’s Department for police services since its inception in 1959. It is currently one of nine cities to do so, accounting for 52 percent of the county’s law enforcement budget.
Under the contract, the city has one officer 24/7 and a traffic officer weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., as well as regional services such as SWAT, aerial support, search and rescue, the crime lab and bomb and arson.
The previous contract expired in June 2011. Negotiations were ongoing until the new agreement was reached in October 2012.
Under the new contract, Del Mar will pay about $1.7 million for the 2012-13 fiscal year, about $150,000 less than what was budgeted.
Assistant City Manager Mark Delin said the new contract offers the same level of service with an emphasis on cost control.
The previous agreement capped annual increases at 5.5 percent with exemptions for salary and benefits. If an individual city exceeded the cap, that cost could be spread to other cities.
The new contract reduces caps and includes salaries and benefits except for certain retirement costs the county can’t control. It also eliminates the cost spread to other cities. The only issue not resolved is if a city terminates its contract, which it can do with a one-year notice.
“The Finance Committee is fine with that contract and thinks that we should be going forward with it but with this very important clause,” Benedict said. “As we entertain the idea of looking at other options, if we want to leave it, we can leave it within 12 months.”
Benedict said one problem with the county agreement is that it doesn’t provide flexibility for Del Mar, which is very much a quiet community in the winter months with about 4,000 residents. But the population swells as more than 3 million visitors flock to the area in the summer for the county fair, horse races and beaches.
“There’s no way currently to seasonally adjust the service that we have,” Benedict said. “We want to look at options to beef up protection and service during the summer months.”
Those alternatives include creating its own police department or developing a joint powers authority with neighboring cities, such as Solana Beach and Encinitas, which also contract with the county for law enforcement.
Benedict said Del Mar should also consider a volunteer program, which has been successful for their northern neighbors. Resident Bud Emerson recommended supplementing service with a private patrol as Rancho Santa Fe does.
Benedict estimates a Del Mar Police Department would cost the city, for the same level of service, about $1.5 million annually, plus $500,000 for one-time startup costs.
“This one kept popping up on our radar as a real possibility for our city,” he said.
Benedict said he arrived at those budget numbers after discussions with a police chief in Tehachapi, a city about the size of Solana Beach. He also talked with a few consultants and researched other California cities that had a sheriff’s contract but left to form their own departments.
“I think it’s an important starting point,” Benedict said of the budget, which he described as conservative. “It’s got lots of problems because we didn’t have the consultant.”
“We believe these numbers are real,” said Barry Entous, who worked on the budget with Benedict.
But some council members were skeptical.
“This is a perennial subject,” Councilman Don Mosier said, noting that when he joined the council four years ago he was “amazed” at how much the city paid for law enforcement.
At that time he did his own research and the numbers were similar to Benedict’s but Mosier said he was told Del Mar would have to hire retired officers who already have a pension and would be willing to work for less.
Mosier said he thought the cost could be double what Benedict was estimating.
The three residents who addressed council support the idea of a city police department.
“I really feel that it’s important for the Del Mar residents to have easy access to an officer … that’s individualized with prompt responses,” Robin Crabtree said. “It would be ideal if we could have officers that knew us personally and knew the layout of the city.”
“The reason why we live in a small town … is government is not remote,” Emerson said. “We want to be close to our government and we are. There’s only one element where we aren’t. The Sheriff’s Department is well-run but they’re not part of us.
“It ain’t nothing like having our own chief and our own officers who we get to know, they get to know us,” he said. “They have a feel for what kind of community we are and what our priorities are and what our problems are. “
“If our citizens believe they’re not getting adequate public service from the sheriff’s contract, they have to also realize that getting better service from any other alternative is going to cost more money and we need to figure out how to pay that bill,” Mosier said, reminding everyone that a tax on short-term vacation rentals to fund such services was defeated by voters a few years ago.
“This is a mixed public safety/financial plan where the better service you want, the more you’re going to have to pay for it and none of it’s cheap,” Mosier said.
Benedict said hiring a consultant would be the best way to confirm or refute his budget.
“We do need professional help,” he said.
Mayor Terry Sinnott agreed, saying the city has “exhausted the talent” of its volunteers.
“What’s frustrated the city for a while is we’re too small to consider other alternatives,” he said. “This would open door to what our reasonable alternatives are.”
Councilman Al Corti also said he believes the city is at a point where a consultant would be beneficial. “It’s time for an expert,” he said.
But other council members initially opposed the recommendation.
“Del Mar’s known for doing studies,” Councilwoman Lee Haydu said. “We’ve studied everything. I think we’re still early in this.”
Sherryl Parks agreed. “This is a worthy investigation but we’re not quite ready to hire a consultant,” she said.
“This problem is not simply going to be solved by a consultant,” Mosier said.
He said the biggest issue is having 4,000 people pay for public safety for more than 3 million visitors.
“I’m a little bit dubious that a consultant can solve that problem but I’m willing to see if somebody’s a lot smarter than I am and can come up with a solution,” he said.
He added that before hiring a consultant Del Mar officials should talk to the neighboring cities to see if there is interest in a JPA because if there isn’t, one option would be off the table and a consultant would have a more focused job.
Council members finally agreed unanimously to issue a request for proposals from consultants to see how much it would cost. The move doesn’t obligate the city to hire one and council members will review all proposals in a public meeting if they choose to move forward after that.