By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A county taxpayers group is urging Cotati voters to reject a sales-tax measure on the ballot next week, noting that Petaluma’s offer to take over police services would save Cotati nearly $1 million a year.
The problem is, the proposal no longer is on the table, and probably never should have been, say Petaluma officials.
And in a further sign of confusion, Cotati city leaders didn’t know until contacted by a reporter that Petaluma’s proposal, presented to them Feb. 3, was no longer valid.
Petaluma city leaders describe the proposal — which wasn’t approved by the city manager or city council before it was submitted to Cotati — as preliminary and unrealistic given Petaluma’s dire financial straits.
“The council didn’t authorize it and it’s not a proposal we’re entertaining,” Petaluma Mayor Pam Torliatt said this week. Torliatt said she first heard of it after the Cotati council discussed it in a public meeting.
With a looming budget deficit, Cotati has declared a state of fiscal emergency and is asking voters to approve a 0.5 percent city sales tax. That would bring the total in the city to 9.5 percent, which would be the highest in the county.
According to the city, the measure would generate $600,000 to $900,000 a year, allowing the city to eliminate its deficit, “prevent potential elimination of the police department,” restore some services and staff and build reserves.
In late January, Cotati officials sought proposals for contracting their police services to save money. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and Petaluma police submitted proposals, which were presented to the council Feb. 3.
The county said it could save Cotati $29,000 a year by providing policing services, which it does for the cities of Sonoma and Windsor. Petaluma said it could do the job for $1.6 million, compared with Cotati’s current $2.5 million police budget.
Cotati council members decided the level of coverage Petaluma proposed wasn’t desirable, City Manager Dianne Thompson said, so it has decided to pursue contracting only its dispatching services if Measure A fails at the ballot box Tuesday.
But the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association has urged voters to reject Measure A, contending that the contract with Petaluma would solve Cotati’s budget woes without the tax.
Fred Levin of the taxpayers group also wasn’t aware that Petaluma’s proposal was no longer an option.
“It’s very strange that all of a sudden the city of Petaluma, which is also in need of financial help, took it off the table,” he said. “I think there’s more to this than meets the eye.”
Petaluma City Manager John Brown said police Chief Dan Fish and his command staff responded to Cotati’s contracting request under a deadline that didn’t provide enough time to brief him or the council.
Fish said the proposal was only a draft and the “rough numbers” should only have been perceived as “what-ifs” in a potential worst-case scenario for Cotati.
Brown said the proposal — which suggested Petaluma could handle the addition of Cotati’s policing needs without increasing staffing levels — was premature and inaccurate.
“It did get out of ahead of us,” he said. “It’s not the way it would normally be handled.”
According to Cotati documents, the proposal would have provided Cotati with two full-time officers 24 hours a day; however, they would not have been dedicated solely to Cotati.
Cotati Mayor Robert Coleman-Senghor learned this week that Petaluma’s council wasn’t aware of the proposal before it went to Cotati. “When we have relations with another agency … I want to know about that,” he said. “I would have been super-peeved, to say the least.”
Both he and Petaluma’s city manager, Brown, said despite the missteps, they don’t want to discourage cost-sharing efforts.
“We learn from these episodes in our lives,” Brown said. “We will do things differently in the future.”
Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy agreed: “Going forward, at least on the bigger things like this, the council and city manager need to be in the loop. The most important thing now is folks in Cotati shouldn’t be under the impression that it’s an option.”
Cotati leaders said if Measure A fails, they will pursue contracting dispatch services, not law enforcement, probably with the sheriff.
The sheriff’s contracting proposal, along with the layoff of an additional Cotati police officer, could save Cotati $135,000 a year for reduced dispatch, front counter and records duties.