DEL MAR — Council members unanimously agreed at the Jan. 20 meeting to move forward cautiously with a recommendation to form a small city police department, but only if the Sheriff’s Department is willing to work under such an arrangement.
Nearly four years ago the city tasked the Finance Committee with finding ways to reduce the cost of law enforcement, which has been provided by the Sheriff’s Department since Del Mar became a city in 1959.
The current contract is for about $1.7 million and is expected to increase about $100,000 annually, according to Finance Department member Jim Benedict.
The city met with law enforcement officials from nearby cities to see if they were interested in partnering with Del Mar but none were. Committee members also researched other police departments in small cities.
A consultant was hired to evaluate current services and research options. According to that report, the Sheriff’s Department provides “excellent emergency services” for the cost compared to other comparable cites.
The consultants estimated a standalone police department would be $200,000 to $300,000 more per year, with a start-up cost of nearly $1 million.
According to the Finance Committee, creating a small police department for Del Mar would cost approximately $575,000 annually, plus about $100,000 in start-up costs.
Then money would be available from renegotiating the current law enforcement contract and a state grant.
The department would include a required chief, one to two certified peace officers and one or two community service officers.
Renegotiating the current sheriff’s contract to allow the new department to be responsible for traffic enforcement could save the city more than $300,000 a year.
The new department would require coordinating operational issues such as dispatch with the Sheriff’s Department using the current method used by the park ranger.
The existing ranger program would be incorporated into the new police department.
As Finance Committee members worked to cut law enforcement costs, they discovered some dissatisfaction with existing services and response times for low priority calls.
Creating a small police department, which is required to allow for enforcement, could increase the visibility of officers and improve response times.
The move is meant to complement the existing contract with the Sheriff’s Department, not replace it. Although it was assumed sheriff deputies would still respond to high-priority emergency calls, Capt. Theresa Adams-Hydar said that wasn’t clear.
To increase law enforcement presence and improve response times, Adams-Hydar said she plans to add officers to Del Mar in March at no additional cost, a proposal Councilman Don Mosier said “sounds like a miracle.”
The few residents who spoke at the meeting said they support the Finance Committee’s recommendation.
“We love to be a small town, and one of the reasons that we love it is we’re very connected to our government,” resident Bud Emerson said. “We know all the people who work in the town.
“The sheriff is not connected to us,” he added. “We don’t know who they are and they don’t know who we are. One of the things I think this proposal does is it keeps the best of the Sheriff’s Department but gives us contact with people who will help provide good order and safety and the service that we the citizens want in a small town like us.
“I really think this is a sweet proposal,” Emerson said. “It fits the culture of this town.”
Council members agreed, but with some caveats.
“I think it’s an option worth exploring,” Mosier said, adding that the plan needs to be thoroughly vetted. “We need a lot more detail before moving forward in a serious way.”
Mayor Al Corti and Councilman Terry Sinnott plan to meet with Adams-Hydar to discuss the proposal in more detail.
“None of this is … a viable option if it’s not done with the sheriff,” Corti said. “This option assumes that the sheriff still does 90 percent of the law enforcement for Del Mar. It will require the cooperation of the Sheriff’s Department.”
Adams-Hydar seemed skeptical when Councilman Dwight Worden asked if, based on her experience, “it could it be worked out.”
“No, it would be very difficult,” she said.
The Finance Committee set a target implementation date of September. Adams-Hydar said it could take at least two years to be vetted by the state, a requirement for employing peace officers.
“It’s not a quick process,” she said.