HERCULES -- Officials say a no-vote on a June 4 utility tax hike measure could force them to disband the police department and contract with the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office for a scaled-down police force. But if that happens, residents may see little difference, aside from fewer officers, in the type of police coverage they receive.
Sheriff's officials say that from a practical perspective, residents in contract cities get the same service they would from a municipal police department, with their own police force and a chief that works closely with the city manager, plus specialized services that only a larger agency such as the Sheriff's Office can provide. Meanwhile, Hercules' own financial data so far have not shown how, assuming equal staffing levels, a contract with the sheriff would be cheaper than maintaining the police department.
"We are still crunching the numbers," City Manager Steve Duran said Friday.
Some residents warn that without its own police department, Hercules could start to resemble neighboring Rodeo, which is policed along with the rest of unincorporated West Contra Costa, except Kensington, by a sheriff's force of 18 plus a lieutenant and other supervisors based in Richmond.
But sheriff's officials point out that four Contra Costa contract cities have full-service police departments staffed by sheriff's deputies, including Lafayette, which, like Hercules, has a population of around 24,000. .
Lafayette City Manager Steve Falk said several factors led his city to choose, and stick with, the contract model. Policing in an urban area, he said in an email, requires multiple competencies, including DNA/crime lab analysis, SWAT team training and deployment, emergency preparedness, canine deployment and dispatch. And then there are the complexities of police administration.
"Every police department these days must have the capability to handle complex workers comp claims and be able to offer independent internal investigations when a complaint is made," he wrote. "It is our conclusion that Lafayette benefits from the expertise and scale economies of the sheriff's department."
Duran said that by switching to a sheriff's contract, the city also would save on workers comp, liability insurance, overtime, dispatch, investigations, and by sharing sheriff's supervisory staff with other parts of West Contra Costa.
"The downside is, of course, we lose local control of police services and we lose our Reserve Officers, our Explorers and our civilian volunteers," Duran said in an email. "Most importantly, we lose the connection our police department has established with the community."
Hercules' Measure A, which requires a simple majority to pass, would increase the existing Utility User Tax to 8 percent from the current 6 percent and "modernize" it -- meaning extend it to previously untaxed cable TV bills. It would raise about $1 million a year and would go far to make up a projected general fund deficit of about $1.27 million in the coming fiscal year.
"Without Measure A funding, we will not only lose our local police department and the officers that know our community, but there will be five fewer officers on duty, impacting public safety," Duran and Finance Director Nickie Mastay said in a May 14 report to the City Council.
A sheriff's contract force of 16 would consist of a chief, two sergeants and 13 deputies. Mastay, at the May 14 meeting, said such a force may have to be reduced further, down to 14, to further offset the general fund deficit.
Councilman Billy Kelly asked, "What if we just cut our department to one chief, two sergeants and 13 officers? What would the effect financially be ... if we just made those cuts internally, to those numbers?"
Police chief Bill Goswick said: "It's something we could look at ... It depends on the numbers."
Duran on Thursday characterized the $386,000 projected savings from a sheriff's contract as a "first-pass" estimate, representing the difference between a "status quo" police budget of around $5,052,000 assuming Measure A passes and one of $4,666,000 if Measure A fails.
Duran said the Sheriff's Office had not given Hercules a quote for a possible contract and that he and his staff had looked to Lafayette's experience and data for guidance.
A "Law Enforcement Comparison Survey" for fiscal year 2012 -2013, compiled by Lafayette in January and based on police budgets and authorized staffing in all 19 Contra Costa County cities as well as the county Sheriff's Office and the Kensington Police Protection & Community Services District, does not show how Hercules might fare better, fiscally speaking, with the Sheriff's Office than with a municipal police department of equal staffing.
Hercules' $4.98 million 2012-2013 police budget and sworn staffing of 20, not counting the chief, comes out to about $249,000 per officer; that is less than the amount per officer in the sheriff's contract cities: Danville, with a $8.1 million police budget and 30 officers, or about $270,000 per officer; Lafayette, with a $4.44 million police budget and 16 officers, or about $277,000 per officer; Oakley, with a $7.97 million police budget and 28 officers, or about $285,000 per officer; and Orinda, with a $4.2 million police budget and 14 officers, or about $300,000 per officer.