Del Mar and Sheriffs are heading back to the bargaining table

The path out of Del Mar’s police impasse may have been under its nose all along.

City leaders are gearing up to go to the negotiating table with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to see how much flexibility there is in the contract Del Mar renewed this summer.

Meanwhile, councilmembers are at odds over a suggestion to stage a public debate that would pit a handful of residents head-to-head in a public forum, followed by a community-wide survey that would steer the council’s ultimate decision.

But first, the council is seeking audience with Sheriff Bill Gore to resolve once and for all whether Del Mar’s contract — which it has held since 1959 — can be massaged to better suit the needs the city has identified over years of research. Councilmembers have queried Gore in years past but felt rebuffed. Their new-found hope stems from a July 10 panel they hosted during which Assistant Sheriff Mike Barnett signaled what the council is interpreting as a willingness to re-open that conversation.

Del Mar’s contract is part of the sheriff’s umbrella contract with the nine cities to which it provides service. Del Mar has, for the last decade, chosen the lowest level of service the department will allow, but those costs are nonetheless climbing.

Driven mostly by pension costs, the contract jumped 6 percent this year, to $2.24 million. Another 6 percent increase next year will bring it to $2.37 million, followed by $2.5 million the year after. By the end of its five-year cycle, the contract is projected to come to nearly $2.75 million.

That equates to roughly $225,000 per deputy per year, and the council wants to see if there are ways to get more service out of that coverage, perhaps by shifting community services officers, dispatching or with the city-hired Park Ranger. Del Mar Mayor Terry Sinnott also wants to know whether the sheriff’s department can guarantee that at least one deputy will be in Del Mar at all times rather than be called out to other cities. Lastly, he wants to know what can be done to cut response times for short calls and to reduce turnover so that deputies can get to know the community better.

The meeting has not yet been scheduled, but Sinnott expects an answer to come in September.

In an interview this week, Barnett reiterated his agency’s willingness to reevaluate the contract. If both sides agree on new terms, the sheriff’s department could adjust coverage right away.

“It’s basically a menu and they select a level of service, so there’s tremendous flexibility,” he said. “We can add services at any time. Assuming that Del Mar isn’t going to add dozens of officers — that it’s just one or two — I anticipate we could have them in place within a month.”

Four years have passed since Del Mar started studying the possibility of putting together its own police force to supplant the city’s 60-year-old relationship with the sheriff.

Frustration over response times and climbing costs have compelled the inquiry, which since 2013 has yielded several reports, public forums and extensive wrangling by the city council. The most recent study — published in April — found that response times would “greatly improve” if Del Mar creates its own police force, while expenses would equate to (or slightly improve upon) sheriff’s costs over a five-year window. Read the report and other analyses at delmar.ca.us/

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Deputies’ response times haven’t been accurately depicted in Del Mar’s discussion, Barnett said. The city has been using old data that doesn’t reflect a marked improvement that came after the department opened a substation in 2014 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, he said.

“Since 2014, our response times across all service calls have dropped between 20 and 30 percent. That has helped out quite a bit,” he said.

Following the July 10 panel with Barnett and Capt. John Maryon, head of the North Coastal station, the council launched into a sometimes-thorny discussion on July 19, which it picked back up at its Aug. 8 meeting. With a scaled-back budget and a daunting work schedule in the months ahead, Councilwoman Sheryl Parks reminded her colleagues that it might be prudent to wait for the tax windfall that will come from the resort project proposed for the bluffs above North Beach, which she pegged at $4 million or more.

“I’m not sure the community at this time has the will to start its own police department,” she said. “I would be more inclined to find solutions that are not with our own independent police department.”

Earlier in the meeting, Deputy Mayor Dwight Worden had floated the idea of a public debate in order to give the community clarity on the pros and cons. The follow-up survey — which he suggested last month — would in turn give the council clarity on what the community prefers.

Both ideas met pushback from Councilman Dave Druker, the sole councilmember to so far declare a firm opposition to creating a police department.

“Who are we doing that debate for? [If] we do it at the Powerhouse, what other new people are going to show up?” he said. “It’s interesting, I just don’t think it’s going to give us any more information. We have all the information. We are going to have to make the decision eventually.”

Worden said he isn’t comfortable yet on deciding either way, but also is hesitant to keep pushing it off.

“Some intelligent people have told me ‘Just table it, you don’t need to deal with it.’ There’s some appeal in that,” he said. “But part of me says man, we’ve spent so much political blood and money and time and effort and I can see the finish line.”

But Sinnott said he wants the council to keep at it.

“If it wasn’t public safety, I would agree with you,” he said. “But I, at least, want to get to the finish line sometime.”

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