Del Mar looking into creating its own police force

By Claire Harlin

Establishing its own police department may be a feasible option for Del Mar, but according to a city finance committee report, it’ll cost at least $1.5 million to get off the ground — and City Council members say that sounds like a low estimate.

“The better service you want the more you’re going to have to pay for it and none of it’s cheap,” Councilman Don Mosier said.

Only moments before unanimously renewing a five-year contract with San Diego County for Sheriff services, the Del Mar City Council on Jan. 28 approved soliciting consultants to conduct an estimated $20,000 initial study on creating an in-house police department. The effort to possibly break away from the county’s law enforcement arm follows a recommendation from the finance committee, which was asked by the council to review Del Mar’s options after its contract with the county expired in June 2011.

Del Mar will pay more than $1.76 million in law enforcement services for 2012-2013 — a contract that includes one 24-7 patrol officer and one traffic officer working eight-hour days Monday through Friday. In contrast, the finance committee’s review, which examined several other small California cities that have maintained their own police forces, estimated that a Del Mar police department could operate under an annual budget of about $1.5 million.

Several Del Mar locals spoke in support of the city’s efforts to develop its own law enforcement department, including resident Wayne Dernetz. But Dernetz also said that there’s good reason why more than 200 California cities contract out their Sheriff services.

“Police service is a high-overhead service,” he said. “You must spread overhead to make it affordable and that’s why small cities often don’t do it.”

He added that projected costs have a way of creeping up very quickly when it comes to implementation.

The finance committee, headed by resident Jeff Sturgis, came up with three options for the city: stay with the current county contract; form a joint powers authority (JPA) or share services with other North County cities; or form a Del Mar Police Department.

Mosier and Councilwoman Sherryl Parks said they’d like to see the city embark on conversations with neighboring communities such as Encinitas or Rancho Santa Fe before spending any money on a study. Mosier said if there is no interest after those conversations take place, then the consultant will have one less option on the table to explore. He also said he would like to get a better idea of what the community wants.

“Del Mar is known for doing studies. We study everything,” said Councilwoman Lee Haydu. “I’d like to know what the cost of a consultant is before I even agree to paying the cost … And I think this is going to cost us a lot more than $1.5 million.”

Mosier pointed out, however, that the issue is not only one of financial concern but also of safety. The city has been decreasing enforcement services from the county with a focus on fiscal responsibility, however, the community has responded with concern about the level of service. For example, there is no volunteer Sheriff program in Del Mar, as there is in Encinitas and Solana Beach. Residents have also expressed that the shores area is underserved during peak summer, fair and racing season months.

Once city staff members draft guidelines for the initial study, the request for proposal (RFP) will come back to the council for review prior to being sent out. Consultant proposals and bids will then be reviewed by the council, which may at that point select a contractor and proceed with the analysis.