In what could be a sign of things to come if Atherton's elected officials decide to outsource police services, a number of Atherton residents attended an early morning meeting of the City Council and town's Finance Committee on Nov. 18 to hear a presentation on another city's experiences in turning over police operations to the county Sheriff's Office.
In spite of the 8 a.m. start time, about 15 residents attended the session, Councilman Jerry Carlson estimated. A number of them spoke, he said, and to his recollection, they all were against farming out police services.
The council has not actively explored outsourcing police services, but it has been struggling to find ways to fix the town budget's $1 million structural deficit, and had directed the Finance Committee to look at options that include outsourcing a number of town services.
The committee had scheduled a presentation by Jeff Maltbie, interim city manager of San Carlos, who was to talk about his city's outsourcing of police services to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office. When Councilman Carlson learned of the presentation, scheduled for the committee's Nov. 18 meeting, he requested that the meeting be held jointly with the City Council, he said.
The meeting's turnout by residents may have been the result, in large part, of an e-mail sent out by former police chief Glenn Nielsen, alerting residents to the meeting and encouraging them to attend, according to people who saw the message.
Councilman Jim Dobbie said the e-mail from Mr. Nielsen "stirred things up. ... It just generated a lot of concern that was totally inappropriate." To the best of his knowledge, he added, "no council member wants to outsource the (police) department. ... We love our police department, but we'd be irresponsible not to look at all options for fixing the financial situation."
Councilman Dobbie said if the council ever decided it wanted to turn over police operations to another agency, he would push for putting the question on the ballot. Bill Widmer, who will take a seat on the council in December, also said voters should be the ultimate decision-makers on outsourcing.
Councilman Carlson said he would want the public to be heavily involved in making a decision of such consequence, but he wasn't certain the question would have to go to a vote. "People need to tell us what services are important to them, and what they're willing to pay for," he said.
Mr. Maltbie's presentation included an overview of San Carlos' move from its own police force to its outsourcing to the Sheriff's Office, a transition that became effective Nov. 1. The process, Mr. Carlson said, included a paring down of services over a number of years in an attempt to reduce costs and retain the department; but after a time, only core services were available and financial problems remained.
Mr. Carlson noted, though, that "San Carlos had a different situation from what we have, at least for now."
Employee costs in Atherton account for nearly 80 percent of the town's budget, with police costs representing just over 50 percent, Councilman Dobbie said. The police department has already been trimmed down to 17 employees, from 22, he said, but costs are still a problem.
The town must "come up with some more revenue or more savings" to restore the town's fiscal health, he added.