Already the town has reduced the size of our police department from 25 to 16 sworn officers. This has greatly increased response time. In the past the town had three sworn officers on patrol 24 hours a day, which is now down to only two sworn officers, and we have fewer traffic and school resource officers serving our needs.
Public safety should be and has always been a top priority for the town. Only two officers on the street can easily leave us short-handed. For example, when one of the officers on patrol stops a driver, who has an outstanding warrant for his or her arrest, the law requires that the officer book the driver in jail, a process that can take up to an hour and a half.
During this time there is only one other officer on patrol, which means that that officer would have to call in assistance from another city in the case of an emergency, a reported burglary, or another instance requiring a second officer to respond. A portion of the town's special tax is intended to provide funds for maintaining our police department at the highest level.
Now the town is considering further downsizing, including outsourcing our building and public works departments. There are potential serious consequences resulting from these changes.
There may be some savings to outsourcing, but there are many offsetting disadvantages. Some of the problems experienced by other municipalities with outsourcing include:
• Outsourcing adds a level of rigidity because contracts are binding and vendors may choose not to accommodate last-minute changes or requests.
• Vendors tend to become complacent once contracts are in place.
• Some vendors were unable to fully absorb losses, leaving the city responsible for paying the bill.
• Some cities found that their vendors did not have the capabilities to provide the expected level of quality or provide any cost savings, resulting in the cities' decision to bring the service back in-house.
• Some paid additional costs for services they believed were included in their contracts.
We acknowledge that the town faces a significant budget deficit, but feel strongly that there are better ways to deal with this deficit. Two major factors have impacted our town budget — legal judgments (hopefully not recurring) and property reassessments resulting in decreased property taxes.
Temporary income reductions are not a good reason for poor long-term decisions. While the economy is slow in its recovery, there are improvements in general municipal revenue collections. For example, the state of California has collected $2.3 billion more from income taxes this fiscal year than was projected. Our revenues are likely to increase in the future with a real estate recovery. Projecting revenue is part science, part art, part philosophy and part luck. The town is projecting a deficit of $856,000 in the 2011-12 budget, but that number will depend upon a number of variables, both expense and revenue.
About 30 years ago the town faced a similar major budget deficit as a result of the passage of Proposition 13. The town surveyed the public for their response to this deficit, reducing services or increasing revenues to maintain the same high level of services. Eighty-five percent of the community responded that they preferred to maintain services, and preferred to pay a special parcel tax to fund these services. The town has not increased the special parcel tax for many years. One hundred percent of the special parcel tax funds go directly to Atherton, compared with approximately 10 percent of our regular property tax.
We believe a town survey would demonstrate the town's support for an increase in the level of the special parcel tax in order to be able to restore our former level of police protection and preserve other essential town services. For example, an across-the-board increase in the parcel tax of about $350 per parcel annually would completely eliminate the projected deficit. We would urge the council to consider surveying the community before making any decisions to drastically reduce staff.
Malcolm Dudley and James Janz are both former Atherton mayors.