Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 21, 2011

Editorial: Combining services may save cities $$

Four North County cities to explore ways to combine some public-safety services to cut costs — but no big mergers in sight

An exploratory initiative by Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Los Altos to see if there are ways to save money by combining some public-safety services is such a logical step forward that one wonders why it didn't happen long ago.

The Palo Alto City Council Tuesday night approved the exploration as part of its consent calendar, usually reserved for completely non-controversial matters.

This is where this belongs. Other city councils are adopting similar resolutions.

Combining services is not new. Already the various cities have worked together on sewage treatment, waste disposal, animal services, SWAT teams and mutual aid for police and fire.

We have come a long way from the early 1970s when there was no mutual aid and there were instances of fire trucks from one jurisdiction sitting across city boundaries watching neighboring firefighters struggle with fires. This actually happened before the formerly unincorporated Barron Park area annexed to Palo Alto, when Palo Alto fire trucks parked across El Camino Real while older volunteers struggled to quell a roof fire of the Cameo Club card room on an icy early-morning. It would be unthinkable today.

"This recommendation is made understanding that difficult financial times require an even greater focus on reducing costs while maintaining or enhancing services," the Palo Alto staff report to the council states.

Palo Alto City Manager James Keene and the other managers Kevin Duggan of Mountain View, Doug Schmitz of Los Altos and Gary Luebbers of Sunnyvale deserve credit for initiating the exploration.

The managers have already held informal discussions and identified potential areas to explore. The Weekly reported on the discussions several months ago when just Mountain View and Los Altos managers were involved with Palo Alto. Sunnyvale joined the talks later.

Public-safety communications is a leading possibility, along with emergency planning services, on which Palo Alto has been a leading community for years but still has far to go to be really prepared for a major disaster or crisis situation.

More mundane but potentially fruitful areas include arson investigation, where one highly trained multidisciplinary team of experts might move in to conduct such investigations rather than each department developing separate investigative units. Similarly, fire-prevention efforts could be done by a roving team through several communities.

But there are other, still undefined areas the managers may explore, Keene made clear in his one-page report to the council.

"Although the previously mentioned consolidation opportunities will be the focus of the City Managers' conversations, they are in no way limited to these criteria and are expected to explore any appropriate opportunity where cooperation can result in efficiencies, cost savings for taxpayers and increased services at less cost," Keene stated.

He emphasized, however, that "this is purely and exploratory process and none if it is binding."

That assurance, though intended to assuage any concerns by residents or employee unions, does give free official rein to expand on the earlier discussions.

No timeframe has been specified for returning to the respective city councils with recommendations, however. Part of that will be determined by how far the managers have gotten during their unofficial discussions.

One hopes that the group returns with some effective recommendations this spring, in time to implement before the next fiscal year begins July 1.

There are areas needing caution. Careful attention needs to be placed on whether estimated cost savings or service improvements are truly achievable.

Side effects also need to be assessed with care. The three-city waste management partnership, known as SMaRT, turned out to be a costly burden through longstanding contracts for delivering a minimum tonnage of waste to the Kirby Canyon landfill, resulting in potentially millions in penalties due to high public support of recycling efforts that reduced landfill volumes.

One might also ask whether there are other local entities, such as the Menlo Park Fire Protection District or the Menlo Park and East Palo Alto police departments, that might have areas of potentially great benefit from combining services.

But that should be a matter of one-step at a time, and we should let the existing manager-level explorations bear fruit before biting off more and possibly losing focus on solid achievements.

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