Cost of safety, critiqued

Will Chico follow Oroville’s lead by exploring contracting out public-safety services?

The Oroville fire and police departments may be consolidated into Cal Fire and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, respectively, within 18 to 24 months.

The Oroville fire and police departments may be consolidated into Cal Fire and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, respectively, within 18 to 24 months.


When Bill LaGrone, Oroville’s public-safety director, went before the Oroville City Council July 15, he requested something that drew the ire of many of his own personnel—permission to ask the Butte County Sheriff’s Office and Cal Fire whether they will take over public safety in Oroville.

As LaGrone effectively serves as both police and fire chief, he has taken heat over the request, particularly from police and fire union representatives. In an Action News Now story, Jared Cooley, president of the Oroville Police Officers’ Association, said the move came “out of left field,” while Skip George, president of the Oroville Firefighters’ Association, said, “It felt like somebody sucker-punched me in the stomach.”

But, as City Administrator Randy Murphy explained during a recent interview with the CN&R, it wasn’t all LaGrone’s doing. When Murphy took the position last year, he was already entertaining the idea of contracting out for public-safety services. A few weeks ago, he and LaGrone agreed they would seek council approval to explore the concept.

“We in the public sector are tasked with providing the best value for the tax dollars,” Murphy said, “so it’s incumbent upon us to look at all options about any money we spend.”

It remains to be seen whether the county sheriff or Cal Fire—or any other outside agencies—can offer Oroville a more efficient public-safety model. Following the City Council’s unanimous vote allowing LaGrone and Murphy to move forward with the process, it may be months before they have cost estimates and an idea of what such an arrangement could mean for current employees and the city.

From Murphy’s perspective, one thing is clear: The status quo is draining Oroville’s general fund. Last June, a $2.1 million deficit resulted in about 40 layoffs across all city departments, including police and fire. Oroville’s operating budget was $11.7 million last year, Murphy said, with employee compensation eating up $9.4 million. About 70 percent of payroll was spent on public-safety personnel.

Providing employee benefits is a big factor, he said. When considering the total cost of medical, dental and retirement benefits, Murphy “conservatively” estimates that the city spends an additional 45 to 50 cents on top of every dollar spent on salary.

It’s all amounted to diminished city staffing and services, he said. “Realistically, we have a need for at least six to eight more police officers and four or five more firefighters, and we don’t have the budget to add that staff,” he said.

Oroville’s predicament should be familiar to Chicoans, as compensation for public-safety personnel consumed 82 percent—$29.1 million of $35.4 million—of Chico’s general fund last year. Again, employee benefits packages are an issue. In 2012, Chico’s staff averaged $67,645 in wages, or about $5,500 more than the state average. Meanwhile, the average in benefits was nearly $32,000, or $14,500 more per employee than the state average, according to the state Controller’s Office.

During a recent interview, Councilman Randall Stone said, “Bottom line: We have a pension, benefits and salaries problem in Chico.”

Contracting out public-safety services has become something of a statewide trend. In Los Angeles County, more than 40 municipalities contract with the sheriff’s department. Closer to home, Rancho Cordova contracts with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, while East Palo Alto and a handful of other Bay Area cities are considering similar arrangements.

And Chico may be moving in that direction. This past spring, former City Manager Brian Nakamura requested the council issue a notice of intent that would allow the city to consider contracting out for fire services. (The union’s contract includes a provision that precludes the city from doing so without three years of notice.) During a meeting on April 15, the council voted unanimously to issue the notice, thereby beginning the three-year countdown before the city can consider contracting with an outside fire agency.

For his part, Interim Fire Chief Shane Lauderdale believes it’s in the city’s best interest to “look more closely at the way they’re providing services and make sure they’re getting the very best value.” But that’s not to say he’s concerned with the future of his department.

“One of the reasons I’m absolutely not worried about what the council has done is that I know that even if they look at other options, they’re not going to find a better value.”

Part of that is his department’s willingness to change, Lauderdale asserted.

“An organization that works directly for the city is able to be adaptive,” he said. “Whenever you contract with a larger organization, you limit your ability to be flexible and meet the emerging needs of the community; you put yourself in a position where you’re expected to have a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Chico Police Chief Kirk Trostle declined to comment on this story.