Morro Bay drops police outsourcing after public outcry

Morro Bay City Council members on Tuesday night voted 5-0 not to research whether to outsource the city’s law enforcement to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.
Morro Bay City Council members on Tuesday night voted 5-0 not to research whether to outsource the city’s law enforcement to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office. Tribune file

Morro Bay residents on Tuesday night showed strong support for their local police force, speaking out against a plan floated by the city to outsource law enforcement services to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office as a way to save $500,000 a year.

City Council members, who were to consider whether to further research contracting out the city’s policing, heard from dozens of constituents who packed Veterans Memorial Hall to praise Morro Bay’s department and the level of service officers provide.

After two hours of discussion, comments and boos from the audience, the council ultimately voted unanimously not to pursue the proposal.

The idea first came about in 2015, when Management Partners, a consulting firm Morro Bay officials hired to provide feedback on how the city could function more efficiently, proposed outsourcing law enforcement to save money. Morro Bay was to take up the issue in 2017, but the Aug. 1 departure of police Chief Amy Christey, and the need to find her replacement, prompted city officials to consider the topic now.

“It is likely the city would not attract high-quality candidates if this issue was hanging out there,” City Manager David Buckingham told the council Tuesday.

A 10-year budget forecast by Management Partners prompted the city to look into cost-saving measures last year, Buckingham said. Although Morro Bay’s finances are in the black and basic services can be met, he said, the city has about $3 million in unfunded needs, including an annual $1 million shortfall for street repairs and $2 million per year for facility replacements and expanded services.

The $500,000 annual savings by outsourcing services to the Sheriff’s Office would have meant a 15 percent drop in law enforcement costs compared with the police department’s annual $3.2 million budget.

Still, Buckingham said he recommended the council shelve the outsourcing plan because residents value a local police force more than the financial savings. The city could find other ways to raise the needed money, he said.

Prior to the council’s vote, angry residents booed Buckingham when he brought up potential cost-savings during his report. Residents who took to the podium said their quality of life in Morro Bay depends on maintaining local services, such as police, fire and harbor patrol.

Ken Vesterfelt presented council members with a petition, signed by 2,200 people, urging the city to keep its police department.

Morro Bay police Officer Greg Gruich called himself and his fellow officers “big, loveable, floppy-eared sheepdogs” who could turn into John Wayne “with the flip of a switch.” Gruich said he understood why the council might consider outsourcing but called on them to maintain local law enforcement.

Mary Jo DeSio said Morro Bay’s local police force was instrumental in her decision to move to the area. She recalled a time when her wallet was stolen during a trip to the grocery store, and a city police officer was immediately able to identify the culprit from a surveillance video. The incident demonstrated the “beauty of having local personnel,” DeSio said.

Some speakers also brought up Measure Q, a half-cent sales tax hike residents approved in 2006 to provide more money for fire, police and street repairs, as an example of their willingness to pay more for local services.

Others expressed their dismay at the city’s 2014 decision to outsource its emergency dispatch services. However, fire Chief Steve Knuckles said contracting with the county was beneficial and more efficient because Morro Bay couldn’t afford sufficient dispatch staff. Even so, residents remained displeased by the change.

Before the council’s unanimous vote not to pursue outsourcing, Councilman Matt Makowetski said residents’ clear support of their police force was a positive outcome of the discussion.

Councilwoman Christine Johnson said she was pleased Management Partners’ report provided the city with data that backed up their decision to maintain local police.

“It’s easy to make an emotional decision,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to.”

Even though the issue is a passionate one for Morro Bay residents, Mayor Jamie Irons said talking about outsourcing remained worthwhile.

“It’s still a good discussion,” he said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27