Deficit puts Grover Beach dispatch merger with Arroyo Grande on hold

Grover Beach officials, facing an estimated $850,000 deficit in next year’s budget, have decided now is not the time to combine its police and fire dispatch services with Arroyo Grande.

Doing so has been a goal of the Five Cities Fire Authority — the joint Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano department. Fire officials say it would improve communication, increase the number of dispatchers working at one time and help resolve problems caused by the current setup, with two separate dispatch centers handling calls for one agency.

“It’s a tough decision to say, ‘We need to wait,’ ” Grover Beach police Chief Jim Copsey told the City Council on Monday.

But while Grover Beach maintains its current system, the Arroyo Grande City Council may move in a different direction.

The council on May 10 will discuss a cost analysis outlining savings if the city provided consolidated police services to Grover Beach on a contract basis. Doing so could save the two cities a total of $800,000 to $1.3 million, said Arroyo Grande police Chief Steve Annibali. But, perhaps more significantly, it could provide a higher level of service to the public, with more officers on the street, more detectives working cases, less overhead and fewer management positions.

“There was a time I would say that the public does not want to let go of their police or fire department,” Annibali said. “But I believe times have changed in that respect, and I think a lot of people are looking at local governments for ways to reduce costs.”

The timing could also be right for other reasons, he said. Both cities face deficits, escalating costs of retirement benefits for employees, and may have vacant positions or retirements that could allow police to combine services without any layoffs.

If the two cities decide to move forward, there are several examples statewide they can look at. While police consolidation does not appear to be a widespread trend, several California cities have combined services or have contracted with their local county sheriff’s departments for services, said Dorothy Holzem, an associate legislative representative for the League of California Cities.

One example is the Marin County cities of Larkspur and Corte Madera, which combined their police departments in 1980.

Consolidation of fire departments is a more widespread trend, she said.

New station needed

In the meantime, Arroyo Grande officials continue to pursue options for a new police station — or they may need to address the deficiencies in the 8,151-square-foot station, including space constraints and a leaky roof.

City staff recently sent a proposal to the council to sell the police station property at 200 N. Halcyon Road to the city’s redevelopment agency to eventually use as low-income housing, and reserve the funds for the police project.

The council decided the site was not an optimal area for low-income housing, but said it might reconsider when city officials have a specific proposal for a police facility, said City Manager Steve Adams.

In the next few months, Adams will present to the council potential locations for a new station. One suggestion, the site of a former credit union at East Grand Avenue and Juniper Street, could provide a central location for both cities — if Grover Beach is interested in pursuing talks about police consolidation.

Joint dispatch

An analysis by Grover Beach police chief Copsey of different options for combining public safety dispatch found any potential savings of consolidating services at the Grover Beach station would be offset by the cost of upgrading technology for the facility.

If dispatch services combined in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach dispatchers would become Arroyo Grande employees. But that would drop Grover Beach’s number of employees below 50 and affect its ability to retain its “large group” status for medical insurance, costing the city about $116,000.

The Grover Beach council directed staff to continue looking for any cost-saving opportunities and steps to improve the delivery of fire services.

“We feel it’s in our best interest that we get to a solution that’s more effective and efficient, and we can do what we’re doing until we get to that point,” Fire Chief Mike Hubert said.