Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
Posted: 07/23/2012 08:48:27 PM PDT

Special Section: San Bernardino

SAN BERNARDINO – The city’s decision to file for bankruptcy protection has reignited the debate about whether the city, as a potential cost-cutting measure, should dissolve its police and fire departments and contract with the county for those services.

Last week, the City Council declared a state of fiscal emergency and directed staff to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. It came a week after city officials said a $45 million budget deficit and cash-flow quagmire could leave the city unable to meet its Aug. 15 payroll.

Officials at the San Bernardino County sheriff’s and fire departments said San Bernardino city officials have not approached them on the subject of contracting with their agencies for police and fire services.

But some say the time has come for the city to seriously consider such a move, or at least rethink how it can slash its public safety budget to get its financial house in order.

In a budget report presented to the City Council earlier this month, Finance Director Jason Simpson and interim City Manager Andrea Miller suggested that the city initiate discussions with Cal Fire and other cities about establishing a fire district, with San Bernardino serving as the lead agency.

The San Bernardino Fire Department, which staffs 128 sworn personnel and 33 civilian employees, would comply with any direction given by the city, but it would also be poised to oppose such action, Battalion Chief Eric Esquivel said.

“We believe that our employees could do a better job if given the opportunity to continue providing the service ourselves,” Esquivel said.

Miller and Simpson also recommended in their report that the Police Department contract with adjacent communities for dispatch and other services. Among the cities that have already done so include Brea, Whittier and Maywood, according to the report.

San Bernardino Police Chief Robert Handy said Monday that his department already contracts with the cities of Fontana, Colton, Loma Linda and Grand Terrace for animal control services, and also provides animal shelter services for Fontana and Colton. He said he met recently with police chiefs in two other cities to discuss potential contracts with their cities for animal control services.

The Police Department also contracts with other agencies for use of its firing range and has a $1 million-plus contract with the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians for policing near San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino, Handy said.

“We regionalize quite a bit. We can still do more,” Handy said. “We have to look at more creative ways to handle the issues we’re facing.”

Miller’s and Simpson’s recommendations are strictly suggestions and not necessarily a starting point for any real consideration, Acting Assistant City Manager Gwendolyn Waters said in an e-mail.

Waters, who is also a captain at the Police Department, said the city is more focused now on its bankruptcy filing and meeting its August payroll. Any recommendations in Simpson’s and Miller’s report will be considered at a later time.

San Bernardino attorney and Chamber of Commerce member Tim Prince has long believed the city should dissolve its fire department and contract with the county for services, but believes the city needs to retain its police department.

“The advantages to local control of a police department are that the police services can be tailored to the individual needs of the community, and the politicians can exert some pressure on problem areas so the police department can be more responsive,” Prince said.

Additionally, an autonomous police department tends to instill a certain level of community pride, Prince said.

“I think you can’t help but have pride of your city’s Police Department – something that’s uniquely your city as opposed to the countywide sheriff’s department,” Prince said.

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