In July, Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano consolidated their fire services to form the Five Cities Fire Authority — a longtime ambition of the three communities.
With that goal complete, the focus turned toward studying whether fire and police dispatch services could also be combined.
But some say the timing could finally be right to focus on a larger goal, which has been discussed on and off for years, without success — to study full consolidation of the Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach police departments.
Doing so could give the two cities a combined savings of $800,000 to $1.3 million, according to a preliminary analysis, said Arroyo Grande police Chief Steve Annibali.
“I feel now is the time to look at it again,” Grover police Lt. John Bewick told the Grover Beach City Council on Tuesday night. Doing so could give the cities cost savings during current difficult budget times, as well as long-term savings and better service to local residents, he said.
But whether there is enough support in each city to discuss a full consolidation of law enforcement remains to be seen.
The Arroyo Grande City Council took a step in that direction Tuesday night, requesting that city staff put together a more detailed cost estimate of providing consolidated police services to Grover Beach on a contract basis. The council could consider it again in four to six weeks.
Annibali said that since the failure of a bond measure in November to raise money for a new police station in Arroyo Grande, city administrators have been scouting locations to build a new facility or purchase an existing building. One location, the site of a former credit union at East Grand Avenue and Juniper Street, could provide a central location for both cities, he said.
Grover Beach council members briefly discussed full consolidation, but didn’t act in that direction. Instead, the council directed city staff to work with the fire chief and the two police chiefs to report back during their first meeting in April with a proposal and a recommendation on the best way to consolidate police and fire dispatch.
“I think police consolidation is not something we close a door on, but we need to focus on dispatch,” said Mayor John Shoals.
Handling fire calls
In the meantime, Five Cities Fire Authority officials envision a combined regional public safety communications facility that could meet firefighters’ needs, including dispatchers trained in fire service, emergency medical and hazardous materials terminology, fire Chief Mike Hubert said.
He’d also like to be able to assist in hiring dispatchers and conducting quality assurance checks of dispatch calls.
Both the Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach city councils Tuesday reviewed a range of alternatives: having one of the two cities provide all public safety dispatch; having one of the two cities provide only fire dispatch, and continuing separate dispatch services for police; or contracting with San Luis Obispo for dispatch services.
That latter option, however, was deemed too expensive.
Currently, dispatchers in both cities provide fire dispatch for the Five Cities Fire Authority, which is the combined Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano fire departments. But the two dispatch locations don’t communicate directly with each other, and may not be aware of what firefighters who are staffed at different stations are doing, Hubert said. Dispatchers try to monitor each others’ radio traffic, he said.
P.J. Ferguson, head of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4403, told the Grover Beach council that the union supports a consolidated dispatch center but that the “nuts and bolts,” from staffing to training to oversight, still need to be studied.
The Arroyo Grande council also supported a recommendation to provide police and fire dispatch services from Arroyo Grande, in which current Grover Beach dispatchers would become Arroyo Grande employees.
This option, however, would drop Grover Beach’s number of employees below 50 and affect its ability to retain its “large group” status for medical insurance. The change could cost the city an estimated $100,000 to $116,000, Grover Beach City Manager Bob Perrault said.
Arroyo Grande council members noted this problem and said they hoped the city could come to an agreement with Grover Beach that met its employee-reduction issue.