An option worth exploring

If Chico leaders cannot bring public-safety costs to sustainable levels, they should learn more about contracting out services

Last week, we reported how city of Oroville leaders are looking into the possibility of contracting out for police and fire services (see “Cost of safety, critiqued,” Newslines, by Howard Hardee). Some would say it’s a bold move. Others would say it’s a move of desperation. Perhaps it’s both.

But at the root of the decision to explore this arrangement is a desire to keep the city solvent. Last year, a multimillion-dollar budget deficit led to 40 layoffs as well as a reduction in city services.

Oroville officials say it may take months to know whether contracting with such agencies as Cal Fire and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office would result in significant efficiencies. If the same levels of service can be provided at a cost savings, such an arrangement is a no-brainer.

Here in Chico, we’ll be watching the situation closely. We’re not ready to say city leaders should contract out these services, though the public is increasingly supportive of such action. But City Council members and top administrators would be wise to keep an eye on Oroville, too, and at least consider exploring the viability of a similar arrangement.

After all, the city spends about 82 percent of its operating budget on public safety. The fact is current salaries and benefits packages for the police and fire departments are not sustainable. The benefits in particular have soared to levels more than double the state average for public employees. Chico’s current top managers are not at fault for this. However, it is incumbent upon them to ensure that the city is able to provide the public with city services, including adequate public safety. If that takes exploring other options to make that happen, so be it.