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Santa Paula Looking for Help

To avoid a possible public safety sales tax, the city considers the feasibility of merging or contracting for police and fire services.

September 04, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

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Cash-strapped Santa Paula is exploring the possibility of merging or contracting with Ventura County or neighboring cities for police and fire services, the city manager said Wednesday.

The effort is an attempt to provide higher levels of service and at the same time protect Santa Paula from further state budget cuts by stabilizing the city's $9-million general fund budget, of which the largest expenditure is police and fire protection, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said.

One of the ways to do that, he said, is to provide more cost-efficient services. Toward that end, the City Council voted Tuesday night to send letters to the cities of Fillmore and Ventura and to the county Board of Supervisors, asking each entity how much it would cost to merge or contract with Santa Paula to provide the two critical services.

"We're not the richest community in this county and we don't have the level of services that others enjoy, but we want to see that change over time by finding innovative ways to provide these services," Bobkiewicz said Wednesday. "We need to see what kind of money we're talking about."

If the city fails to find ways to provide more cost-efficient services in the future, the city manager warned, it may be forced to ask voters to approve a public safety sales tax to meet increasing demands.

Currently, Santa Paula spends $4 million a year for its Police Department that includes 23 patrol officers, and $1 million for its Fire Department.

Police officers in Santa Paula are the lowest paid in the county, Bobkiewicz said, earning from $1,524 to $1,977 every two weeks.

Police Department veterans have complained they do not have enough officers to keep gang members under control.

Five street gangs with about 200 members among them operate in the farming town of 30,000 residents, police said.

The two homicides in Santa Paula this year are believed to have been gang-related.

"In order to provide our residents with quality public safety services, the city must be able to employ adequate numbers of police officers and firefighters as well as properly equip, train and competitively compensate them," Bobkiewicz wrote in a memo to the City Council.

"I believe the city must develop strategies now that will allow us to fulfill these requirements well into the future."

Bobkiewicz said council members would prefer not to eliminate Santa Paula's police and fire departments, "but we need to know if our neighboring communities are interested in exploring options."

He acknowledged that while it may cost the city more to merge or contract for services, it could also guarantee adequate police and fire protection over the long run, which, he said, would be a more efficient use of city money.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Krause agreed that the city had to do something now about its financial situation because its expenditures would exceed its revenue in another 18 months, according to financial projections.

She said the move did not reflect a dissatisfaction with the police and fire departments but was a reaction to the city's serious financial situation, caused in part by increased costs to the public employee retirement system and workers' compensation program.

In addition, local revenue is relatively flat because Santa Paula relies more on property taxes than many other municipalities because the city does not have a large sales tax base.

"We need to provide more of our high level of services more cost effectively," Krause said.

She agreed with Bobkiewicz that the city may be forced to seek a public safety tax if it failed to find a solution to the police and fire situation.

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