In an abrupt change, the Santa Clara Police Department will begin billing the San Francisco 49ers for escorting the team to the airport, preseason games and other functions -- and quit using on-duty officers.

Under a new policy regarding the football team, Santa Clara police will turn to off-duty officers to escort the team buses and will charge a three-hour minimum fee even though most of the trips are only 30 to 45 minutes. The city last week also billed the team $18,293.35 for police escorts dating back to 2007.

The change comes after critics of the 49ers' deal to build a new stadium in Santa Clara blasted the city upon discovering on-duty officers were escorting the team at no charge.

"I'm not wild about it," said Police Chief Steve Lodge of the change. "We've prided ourselves on providing a level of service without having to charge. But because of the questions and skepticism by the anti-stadium folks, we've decided to change things."

Council members will review the new policy at their meeting tonight. Police had been providing escorts from the 49ers' training facility in Santa Clara to preseason games at Candlestick Park or the Oakland Coliseum, and to and from Mineta San Jose International Airport.

Lodge acknowledged that he saw "both sides" of the argument. But after talking with City Manager Jennifer Sparacino, Lodge decided to send a bill Nov. 9 to Jim Mercurio, director of stadium operations for the 49ers, and explain the new working relationship.


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The grass-roots group of residents who are wary of the 49ers' desire to build a $937 million football stadium in the city with $114 million in public contributions are pleased by the change, even though many members think the $18,000 bill is far too low.

"They weren't going to do this until they got caught," said Jay Keehan, an accountant who volunteers with Santa Clara Plays Fair. "They're doing what they should have been doing all along. This is a drop in the bucket in terms of money, but it's symbolic in light of the cutbacks and layoffs and library closures we're having in the city."

Incoming Mayor Jamie Matthews, a big supporter of the stadium deal, said charging the team is the right thing to do.

"It came to light that the team was routinely using escorts, and since it was ongoing, we should recover our costs for that," Matthews said.

Team spokeswoman Lisa Lang said: "If they want to charge us now, then we'll pay the amount that's owed."

The issue came to light shortly after Aug. 28, when former high-tech marketing manager Deborah Bress said she got an anonymous call about Santa Clara police officers at the Oakland Coliseum for a preseason game against the Raiders. Bress filed two public records requests in September seeking information about who was paying for the police escorts. The Mercury News wrote a front-page story about the controversy last month.

Because the escorts were on-duty officers, Lodge insisted he would have pulled them away from the football team if there was an emergency.

But now, Lodge said, the department will only escort the team by using off-duty officers, who will charge time-and-a-half of their regular hourly earnings, which range between $48 and $60 an hour. Charging the team for a three-hour minimum is part of the department's "standard service" agreement with anyone else seeking police services, according to Lodge.

Lodge has said his department also provides free on-duty police officers for other events in the city, whether it be a company that needs extra police service on a day where employees were getting laid off or the regular protesters who take to the streets every Saturday at Winchester and Stevens Creek boulevards.

The move this month brings Santa Clara police in line with other police agencies. The California Highway Patrol, which serves as the other main escort for the 49ers, only uses off-duty officers who sign up for overtime paid by the team, and the agency charges 85 cents a mile for wear-and-tear on CHP vehicles. Oakland police who escort the Raiders are also off-duty and on overtime.

Contact Lisa Fernandez at 408-920-5002.