By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Rohnert Park’s public safety chief delivered a measured but passionate and at times uncommonly personal defense of his department’s role in defining the city Tuesday.
The moment was seen by many as Round One of a battle for the future of Rohnert Park’s Public Safety Department, which is under intense budget scrutiny as the council considers contracting out for police and fire services.
“Do not sell off Public Safety like you sold off land in the past, because you won’t get it back,” said Public Safety Director Brian Masterson, referring to the city’s prior practice of selling city property to plug deficits.
One of the city’s features at its founding in 1962 was creation of a combined police and fire department, and Masterson said the department would become stronger in rising to the budget challenge.
“Iron sharpens iron,” he told a supporter who came up to shake his hand after his presentation.
City Manager Gabe Gonzalez lit what has become a political fire in February by asking the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to submit a proposal to take over police services in Rohnert Park.
The city also has been talking with the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District about providing the city’s firefighting.
At Tuesday’s budget workshop, Gonzalez presented findings of a cost analysis by an outside consultant concluding that contracting out both police and fire services could save the city up to $2.5 million a year.
Audience members, including about a dozen officers and at least that many supporters, said losing the public safety department would be too big a price to pay.
“If public safety is eliminated and replaced with something that doesn’t have the identity of Rohnert Park, we have a dying town,” said resident Jeff Rosentreter.
He was one of several who spoke against contracting out for the city’s combined police and fire services.
“If you do it, you might as well look at disbanding the city as a whole,” said Warren Hopkins, a former councilman and retired public safety officer.
Under the contracting proposal, Rohnert Park’s chief would be replaced by a sheriff’s lieutenant, the same as in Windsor and Sonoma — and Masterson called attention to that, too.
“You have someone who has 31 years of experience,” said the former Alameda County sheriff’s captain and commander of the Port of Oakland and the Oakland International Airport.
“You’re going to get an entry-level manager,” with a sheriff’s lieutenant, he said. “You are going to get a young person who doesn’t have the experience or training that the current director does.”
Shirley Patton said the combined public safety department gives the city “64 police officers, 64 firefighters, 64 first responders.” And, she asked, “Can the Sheriff’s Department provide that same level of comfort?”
Others said the move would violate the trust of residents who passed a 2010 half-cent city sales tax largely on the belief that it would preserve the city’s public safety services.
“This is not what this community voted for,” said Keith Astley, vice president of the city’s Public Safety Officers Association.
Gonzalez, who has been hunting for ways to more efficiently run a city that has dealt with a deficit every year since 2004, said several times that the report was “only preliminary” and that it only examined the question of cost and potential savings.
The report doesn’t “tell whether the least expensive alternative is the best alternative,” he said.
But he made clear his chief concern is getting the city’s finances under control.
Following audience comments, he repeated points he made at the start of the 4½ hour budget workshop, calling attention to the city’s $53 million unfunded retiree medical benefits liability and the 80 percent of the general fund consumed by personnel costs.
He also emphasized Measure E, the city sales tax measure, is a general tax “and can be used in any manner … as directed by the City Council.”
But Masterson said he and other members of the department who “walked door to door” for Measure E had made a clear pitch.
“I asked the citizens of Rohnert Park to support public safety, I did not ask them to support the Sheriff’s Office,” he said.
Masterson was critical of the Matrix Consulting Group’s report on several counts, particularly its comparison of cost trends in the Sheriff’s Office services to Windsor and Sonoma and the Rohnert Park department.
The report, he noted, did not track the city’s public safety costs from 2008 on, a period over which its budget has been cut from $19.5 million to $15.5 million.
That downward trend is likely to continue, Masterson said, adding that the department has come in under budget for three years and will go into the next fiscal year with five fewer personnel, lowering costs further.
The council Tuesday took no action beyond accepting the report as presented.
But Councilman Jake Mackenzie insisted it be accepted with the proviso that more information about the post-2008 department budgets trends be submitted, including the upcoming public safety budget with its reduced personnel costs.
“This to me is a critical matter in terms of the comparisions we are being asked to look at,” he said.