Special Section:San Bernardino
SAN BERNARDINO – The city’s decision to file for bankruptcy protection has reignited the debate about whether the city, as a potential cost-cutting measure, should dissolve its police and fire departments and contract with the county for those services.
Last week, the City Council declared a state of fiscal emergency and directed staff to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. It came a week after city officials said a $45 million budget deficit and cash-flow quagmire could leave the city unable to meet its Aug. 15 payroll.
Officials at the San Bernardino County sheriff’s and fire departments said San Bernardino city officials have not approached them on the subject of contracting with their agencies for police and fire services.
But some say the time has come for the city to seriously consider such a move, or at least rethink how it can slash its public safety budget to get its financial house in order.
In a budget report presented to the City Council earlier this month, Finance Director Jason Simpson and interim City Manager Andrea Miller suggested that the city initiate discussions with Cal Fire and other cities about establishing a fire district, with San Bernardino serving as the lead agency.
The San Bernardino Fire Department, which staffs 128 sworn personnel and 33 civilian employees, would comply with any direction given by the city, but it would also be poised to oppose such action, Battalion Chief Eric Esquivel said.
“We believe that our employees could do a better job if given the opportunity to continue providing the service ourselves,” Esquivel said.
Miller and Simpson also recommended in their report that the Police Department contract with adjacent communities for dispatch and other services. Among the cities that have already done so include Brea, Whittier and Maywood, according to the report.
San Bernardino Police Chief Robert Handy said Monday that his department already contracts with the cities of Fontana, Colton, Loma Linda and Grand Terrace for animal control services, and also provides animal shelter services for Fontana and Colton. He said he met recently with police chiefs in two other cities to discuss potential contracts with their cities for animal control services.
The Police Department also contracts with other agencies for use of its firing range and has a $1 million-plus contract with the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians for policing near San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino, Handy said.
“We regionalize quite a bit. We can still do more,” Handy said. “We have to look at more creative ways to handle the issues we’re facing.”
Miller’s and Simpson’s recommendations are strictly suggestions and not necessarily a starting point for any real consideration, Acting Assistant City Manager Gwendolyn Waters said in an e-mail.
Waters, who is also a captain at the Police Department, said the city is more focused now on its bankruptcy filing and meeting its August payroll. Any recommendations in Simpson’s and Miller’s report will be considered at a later time.
San Bernardino attorney and Chamber of Commerce member Tim Prince has long believed the city should dissolve its fire department and contract with the county for services, but believes the city needs to retain its police department.
“The advantages to local control of a police department are that the police services can be tailored to the individual needs of the community, and the politicians can exert some pressure on problem areas so the police department can be more responsive,” Prince said.
Additionally, an autonomous police department tends to instill a certain level of community pride, Prince said.
“I think you can’t help but have pride of your city’s Police Department – something that’s uniquely your city as opposed to the countywide sheriff’s department,” Prince said.
Larry Gaines, chairman of the criminal justice department at Cal State San Bernardino, agrees that the San Bernardino Police Department should remain intact.
“I really think the city would be better off if it were to retain its police department because of its size and urban complexity,” Gaines said.
An autonomous police department, Gaines said, can more readily respond to citizen complaints about quality of life issues including speeding motorists, vagrancy and noise.
“If you transfer that to the Sheriff’s Department, it extends that line of communication through several more people before it gets down to the actual police officers working that area,” Gaines said.
San Bernardino, at 59 square miles and 210,000 residents, would be a tall order for the Sheriff’s Department, sheriff’s Deputy Chief Joe Cusimano said.
Should the city request a cost benefit analysis, the first thing the Sheriff’s Department would have to determine is whether it could absorb the Police Department’s 286 sworn officers and 172 civilian employees, Cusimano said.
“We have to have the size for that, and I’m not sure that we do,” the deputy chief said.
When the Sheriff’s Department absorbed the Needles Police Department in 1989 and the Adelanto Police Department in 2002, it was dealing with smaller agencies in rural desert cities whose resources were easier to absorb, Cusimano said.
City Councilman Fred Shorett said it may not be worth losing control over police and fire departments unless the city could achieve significant cost savings, but the council needs to at least consider every possibility.
He said he is open to considering sharing dispatch services or additional safety operations with another agency.
“I don’t think the people care whether it’s a white sheriff’s car or a black-and-white San Bernardino police car … They want a badge and a gun and someone who is able to go after the bad guys,” Shorett said.