11:08 PM PDT on Sunday, June 19, 2011

By JOHN ASBURY
The Press-Enterprise

As Inland cities try to put the most police officers on the streets for the least amount of money, communities are asking if the best option is a city police department or a county sheriff’s contract.

In several cities, including San Jacinto, Canyon Lake and Norco, leaders have questioned the rising costs of their contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

Meanwhile, other cities such as Hemet and Redlands have discussed reviewing whether running their own police department is the most economical option amid a budget crunch.

Jurupa Valley, which will incorporate as a new city on July 1, is determining how much police service it needs from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. In his budget, the sheriff anticipates getting $13 million from Jurupa for his department’s services.

Both city police chiefs and sheriff’s officials say what they provide is the best model.

Police chiefs tout a local connection with the community, whereas sheriff’s officials say they can bring the strength of a larger organization to communities.

“Every business model shows a broad set of shoulders is a more cost-effective way of doing things,” Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff said. “The bigger we are across the board, the more economic it becomes. … What makes it cost-effective is you end up sharing. You don’t have to have all the overhead. When you duplicate overhead, it becomes very expensive.”

Sheriff’s contracts are generally more cost-efficient, agreed Andrew Scott, a police consultant and former police chief of Boca Raton, Fla., but they also offer less service than a city police department and the costs are more likely to increase more steeply.

“On first blush, it makes sense that a city may consider bringing in the county sheriff to bring in services with more personnel,” Scott said. “But historically, though the numbers look attractive, the cost of business and police services has a tendency to escalate.”

PROS, CONS OF POLICE

Hemet is at a crossroads when it comes to police services. Though a sheriff’s contract has not been proposed, city leaders have spent months discussing hiring a consultant to review the most cost-effective option, or hiring a public safety director.

Its police force has been besieged by cuts, and its staff is one-third smaller than it was in 2008. Faced with closing a multimillion-dollar budget gap next year, the city has been issuing layoff notices in the Police Department with the intention of demoting some officers to save money and get more officers on patrol. At least two top officials have taken early retirement.

Still, Hemet Police Chief Dave Brown said he’s confident the city will find the Police Department is the best option.

“I feel that way now more than ever, without reservation. There’s been no discussion at the city level of contracting with the sheriff,” Brown said. “Our community and our City Council believe we are the better option.”

Many Hemet police officers have spent their entire careers in the city, know the residents well and care about the issues the city faces, Brown said.

Brown noted that each city’s budget allocates costs differently. The Hemet Police Department’s budget last year also included $1 million in city employee retirement funds not related to police services.

However, some residents have also expressed concerns that with recent layoffs notices and retirements, they may be seeing their city Police Department slipping away.

Connie Hall, a 25-year resident of the San Jacinto Valley and vice president of the Central County United Way, said she has pride in Hemet maintaining its own Police Department. She knows many of the officers who have been affected and fears that the service level may drop if the department changes.

“The decline of our precious community is upsetting. For whatever reason, I know the city’s got a tough job at hand, but chipping away will only lead to an increase in crime,” Hall said. “Hemet’s still a small town and I want to know the police officers.”

The Rialto City Council voted in 2005 to disband its Police Department, established in 1911, and use the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department to save $3.2 million. The next year, the city rescinded the plan and kept its police force.

SHERIFF’S COSTS

In San Jacinto, which eliminated its city-run Police Department in 2004 in favor of sheriff’s services, the annual sheriff’s fee increases have drawn criticism from City Councilman Steve Di Memmo.

“Every year we get increases and we’re not increasing our service or adding more officers,” Di Memmo said. “If we’re going to pay for everything, why don’t we have our own Police Department?”

The city voted last week to continue its sheriff’s contract and not explore forming a police department, with conditions that the city would explore other options, such as having a third party provide police services or forming a Joint Powers Authority to serve both San Jacinto and Hemet.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department does raise its fees most years because of increasing personnel costs. Last year, the contract rate rose by about 4 percent.

The sheriff’s contracts are solely based on the cost of services in each contract city, Sniff said.

He attributed the rising costs either to raises with unions — which are approved by the supervisors, not the Sheriff’s Department — or to cities’ requests for additional services or materials.

“Every city’s howling about how much it costs, but it’s driven by the board’s approval of multiyear raises,” Sniff said.

A number of smaller cities also are struggling with the sheriff’s contract costs.

The Norco City Council voted unanimously last month to lay off some staff members at the Norco sheriff’s substation.

Canyon Lake has the minimum sheriff’s service, requiring one deputy on duty during each 12-hour shift, and is trying to renegotiate its contract.

“We appreciate the sheriff’s service and we get the best service possible, but we can’t afford it,” Mayor Barry Talbot said.

PRAISE FOR SHERIFF

While many cities have complained about rising sheriff’s contract costs, an analysis of city budgets shows that Inland cities with their own police departments spend more per capita on those services.

Among 12 cities with police departments in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that were reviewed, the average policing cost per person is $245.

Among 18 cities reviewed that have contracts with the sheriff’s departments, the average cost was $160 per person.

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