by Don Kazak
In a move that surprised county officials, the East Palo Alto City Council declined Monday night to approve a new police services contract that would keep sheriff's deputies in the city for at least two more years. The proposed arrangement for keeping deputies in East Palo Alto past July had been hammered out in recent weeks by city and county officials. But when the document came before the City Council Monday, its members found several reasons to pause.
Ruben Barrales, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, was prepared to present the contract to his board on Tuesday. Instead, the June 4 meeting is the earliest that the county can sign off on a new agreement.
Sheriff's deputies have been helping patrol the city's streets for the last three years, a commitment that ends June 30.
Sheriff Don Horsley had earlier proposed absorbing the city Police Department into his sheriff's department, a move that Horsley said would save both the city and county money.
But city officials weren't eager to give up their own local police force and instead negotiated for a continuation of what currently exists: Sheriff's deputies help the city with patrols, and staff the investigative bureau for major crimes.
City Council members balked at the contract for two main reasons. The first, cited by several Council members, is that sheriff's deputies on patrol would be under the sheriff's command, not that of Police Chief Wes Bowling. Even though that is the current arrangement, it had never been spelled out in a contract before, and city officials said they were uncomfortable. As Council member R.B. Jones said, "It has to be one police department."
The second reason the Council rejected the contract was the financial commitment. The contract calls for the city to pay the county $350,000 a year for the next two years. The county would pick up the remainder of the cost of about $1.9 million a year of keeping deputies working on city streets.
But the city's financial situation is unclear. It gets $1 million a year in revenues from a parcel tax that has been declared unconsititutional by a judge. Although the city has appealed that ruling and continues to collect the tax pending the appeal, the tax is due to end next year anyway.
"We have some financial realities which are questionable," said Vice Mayor Sharifa Wilson. Specifically, the contract calls for the city to pay the county $350,000 in 1997-98.
Several Council members, in a surprise move, also said they wanted to consider Horsley's original proposal to take over all police services. "We need to look at what a full service contract would look like," Wilson said.
Council member Bill Vines said the city needed to solve several long-standing problems, such as low pay, old equipment and a high turnover in its Police Department, or "otherwise contract the whole thing and be done with it."
"It's a difficult issue but everyone wants to continue the success you've had" in reducing the crime rate, Barrales told the City Council.
While Barrales urged the Council Monday night to accept the proposed contract, he also later welcomed the chance to look at even closer ties between the sheriff's department and city police. "Further discussions will give us a chance to be more creative," he said.
The City Council's next scheduled meeting is June 3, the night before the county board's next meeting.
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