As he turns on his patrol car's flashing lights and stops a motorcycle driver for weaving around construction cones, Mark Ruppenthal looks like any other cop. On a typical day, he pulls cars over for speeding, answers phone calls, writes accident, burglary and vandalism reports.
But Ruppenthal is also Moraga's police chief.
The highest ranking officer in the town's police department is stuck on regular patrol duty because he doesn't have enough officers to fill each week's shifts.
"We're at a staffing crisis, absolutely," he said.
Moraga is home to some of the wealthiest residents in the county, but its police department is broke and can't afford to expand beyond its dozen officers. And crimes such as burglary, assault and theft are rising, Ruppenthal said.
Neighboring Lafayette is also understaffed, compared with what its chief would like.
So rather than struggle alone, the three neighboring police forces in Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda are leaning on each other every day for support.
"There's a symbiotic relationship that has to exist," said Lafayette police Chief Michael Hubbard.
Almost every day, officers from one city respond to a call in another jurisdiction. Major calls can require all on-duty officers from all three cities, he said.
One Friday in August saw a pair of significant calls within a few hours. The first was a hit-and-run in Orinda, which left a 67-year-old man — taking a walk with his wife — with numerous broken bones.
Two hours later came a burglary-in-progress in Lafayette, where three men were taking solar panels from the roof of a house.
"Those incidents required all of us to be involved," Hubbard said.
While all Lafayette's regular officers were in Orinda, Hubbard set his administrative duties aside to respond to alarm and 911 calls. Then he joined his officers in the search for the solar panel suspects, circling the area in his patrol car and directing a helicopter.
Even breaking up a big party of Saint Mary's College students can require all the region's officers, Ruppenthal said.
So sometimes it takes a while for police to respond to less urgent reports.
When an alarm went off at Larry Blodgett's Lafayette flooring business recently, it took police about a half-hour to show up, he said.
"That was a little disturbing," said Blodgett. Fortunately, he said, it was a false alarm.
The police do a good job with the staffing they have, he said, but he wonders whether it's enough, given the nearby BART station and the difficult economic times which seem to be fueling crime rates.
"It seems as though crime is escalating," Blodgett said. Crime in Lafayette has fallen in recent years, but not as quickly as the national average, according to Hubbard. Data is not available for this year.
Police understaffing here stems from city financial woes. Moraga's reserve funds are low, and the city may be spending money faster than it comes in at some points in the year, Finance Director Joan Streit told the Town Council in June.
The town's administration has far fewer employees than other towns its size. And budget projections for coming years show the town headed for red ink, notwithstanding some temporary relief possible with a one-time development-fee boost from the large Palos Colorados housing project.
Until recently, Moraga's department had 13 sworn officers. It is now down to 12; one officer had been paid for by the state, and with the budget crisis in Sacramento, it is unclear whether Moraga will get that money again next year.
Without the state money, all of the department's $2.2 million budget comes from the town's general fund.
Three of those remaining 12 officers are out from job-related injuries, and a fourth is assigned to desk work because of an off-duty accident. Because Moraga's department is independent — unlike those in Lafayette and Orinda, which contract with the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office for all their officers — it can't pull in replacements.
"We need to do something," Ruppenthal said. "We're at a crossroads."
Though still relatively rare, the number of serious crimes in Moraga increased from 198 in 2005 to 288 in 2007.
The Moraga Town Council has asked its staff to look at ways to pay for more police, and several council candidates mention police services in their platforms. But where that money would come from is not clear. The town has no substantial reserves, and few other programs to cut. Ruppenthal said the Town Council has difficult choices to make. "They're in a tough spot," he said.
In Lafayette, the City Council has made fixing crumbling city streets a top priority, so any extra money goes to road repairs and not police services. "We don't have the ability to take a broader approach to law enforcement," Hubbard said.
Two years ago, the city put a $64 parcel tax on the ballot to create a downtown police beat. It got nearly 60 percent of the vote, short of the two-thirds approval needed to pass. Blodgett, the Lafayette business owner, was among those who supported that measure.
In addition to beat officers, Lafayette has a detective, a youth services officer and two traffic enforcement officers. In all, Hubbard's department has 17 sworn officers, the lowest per-capita staffing in the county. The parcel tax would have expanded the city's contract with the county to add a third beat officer to patrol the downtown area.
Orinda has 14 sworn officers, a higher ratio of police to population than Lafayette despite the latter's larger downtown.
The Lafayette police department's $4.3 million budget comes from the city's general fund and state grants, which may be cut this year because of the budget crisis.
The City Council still hopes to get a new or increased tax, its members have said at meetings. And Lafayette and Orinda are studying whether they could save money by breaking away from their contracts with the sheriff's office and forming independent departments.
Until then, the department will continue as it has for years, despite new developments and increasingly active downtown businesses.
"This department has only grown by, I think, three people in close to 20 years," Hubbard said.
In the meantime, the region's police departments will keep depending on each other. And chiefs Hubbard and Ruppenthal will have to keep hitting the pavement along with their officers.
Reach Paul Thissen at 925-943-8163 or email@example.com.