By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Rohnert Park officials have asked the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office how much it would cost to take over the city’s police services.
The preliminary inquiry, which has upset many in police ranks, is part of an investigation into achieving savings by contracting out any number of city services, City Manager Gabe Gonzalez said.
“I am looking at all city services and trying to look at all possible savings and law enforcement is part of that,” Gonzalez said. “I advised my other department heads that I am evaluating their services and costs as well.”
The Department of Public Safety, which combines police and fire protection services, was created with Rohnert Park’s founding in 1962. The department’s $15.5 million budget accounts for about 54 percent of the city’s general fund, making it the biggest target when it comes to savings.
Police departments also typically have a psychological tie to their communities that other services, such as planning or finance, don’t. Sonoma residents fought an emotional, ultimately losing battle in 2004 when city leaders decided to disband their police department in favor of a Sheriff’s Office contract.
“Public safety is visible,” said Rohnert Park Councilwoman Pam Stafford. “People see their public safety officers in the neighborhoods every day.”
While the public has yet to learn much about the step Gonzalez has taken, it has rattled the Rohnert Park department from the top through the rank and file.
“I’m certainly concerned,” said Public Safety Chief Brian Masterson. “I’m not necessarily an advocate for contracting out police services. I think our public safety model provides good services to the community, and it does save money to have the functions combined.”
Emotions at the department are running high, Masterson said. “Why is this happening? Betrayal. Probably some anger — and I understand all that.”
Sgt. Dale Utecht, president of the 71-member Rohnert Park Public Safety Officers Association, the city’s largest employee union, said he did not know beforehand that Gonzalez was going to ask the Sheriff’s Office for a proposal.
“We weren’t consulted, and it would have been nice to know before they made the official request,” Utecht said.
Vicki Vidak-Martinez, a former mayor who was on the City Council during a similar 2006 inquiry, said Gonzalez might have done well to include the union and Masterson, who also found out after the fact, more in the process. But, she said, he also is under pressure to fix the budget problem.
“When you’re squeezed as much as he is, you don’t have a lot of time to be diplomatic,” she said. “I think he’s going to get a lot of backlash.”
Utecht said the union, which also includes dispatchers, will meet Thursday to decide what to do.
“It’s concerning to our members for sure,” he said.
Previous inquiries into contracting out public safety services met with stiff opposition.
“They were hysterical,” Vidak-Martinez said, recalling the union’s reaction to the 2006 proposal, which was never acted on.
She said the council that year decided that the Sheriff’s Office plan didn’t suit the city’s needs.
“We looked at comparable service and felt that it probably wasn’t going to happen,” she said.
Councilman Joe Callinan, who was elected with strong support from the union, said attempts to contract out for police services would not go over easily.
“I think there would be a whole lot of concern, and I think there should be,” he said. “No one wants to lose their police department because once you lose them, you’ll never get it back.”
For him to support such a move, he said, “Boy it would have to be a big, big savings.”
But Callinan also has been an vocal supporter of Gonzalez since he assumed the city’s top management position. And he said Gonzalez is doing what he is paid to do.
“He’s just doing his job the way he sees best. He’s got to look at everything,” he said. “He’s doing a great job, and he’s just doing his due diligence to show us all the options.”
The city has held meetings with the neighboring Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District to examine ways to share resources, Masterson said.
But with 17 out of 61 officers assigned to fire services, and with the discussions focused on enhanced mutual aid and joint trainings, that is a less touchy topic.
“This is a sensitive matter,” Gonzalez acknowledged. “But at this point there is nothing to be concerned with this is just me looking at the cost analysis.”
The Sheriff’s Office has not submitted its proposal to Gonzalez yet.
Besides Sonoma, Windsor is the only other city in the county to contract for police services with the Sheriff’s Office; it has done so since incorporating in 1992.