MILLBRAE —— Burlingame, Millbrae and San Mateo are part of a group of central San Mateo County cities that are informally discussing the merger of their police departments in order to save money and hopefully keep the same number of officers on the street, officials said Thursday.
Cities could save money by sharing police chiefs and other command staff as well as consolidate jobs such as record keeping and dispatching, officials said. Whether the savings would be enough to convince city leaders to give up having an independent police force and possibly open the door to layoffs as well as reduced service is unclear.
Fusing the departments would be a first on the Peninsula, but that move is far from happening. Officials have not had formal discussions or put together a concrete proposal.
However, the idea of sharing services has been discussed for years, said Mike Callagy, San Mateo's deputy police chief.
At this point, the leaders in each city have to decide if this is something they are even interested in getting started, said Lee Violett, Millbrae's interim police chief.
However, the clock is ticking because departments with open jobs have to decide whether to hire new staff members that might have to be laid off after a merger.
Discussion about combining police forces is being spurred by shrinking city revenues that have left officials looking for ways to cut expenses.
Fusing public safety services is not a new idea. Since 1980, Larkspur and Corte Madera have shared the Twin Cities Police Authority. Both communities are similar in terms of residents and problems and are about the same size, said Twin Cities police Chief Phil Green.
"It just kind of lent itself to a single department, combined services," he said.
Several Peninsula fire departments merged in 2004, including Hillsborough and Burlingame, to create the Central County Fire Department.
Burlingame City Manager Jim Nantell said that merger is saving each city $1 million a year and that no staff members were laid off in the process.
But the question of whether employees would be cut is one of the many that Burlingame police Capt. Mike Matteucci has about the proposal.
He said consolidation is the future of police departments, but it's nothing he wants to rush into. It is a major change, he said, and that can be scary no matter what industry someone works in.
Also, because there is no concrete proposal, it is unclear what shape a possible merger would take.
Matteucci said he also has questions about how service could be affected.
"You cut bodies and you might not be able have an officer who could respond to a dog barking," he said. "In a bigger organization, service levels will probably suffer a little."
Violett and Nantell said the goal is to actually improve service. Green said no employees were laid off when the Twin Cities Police Authority was created.
By spending less money on management and administration costs, more cash would be freed up to pay for officers on the street. Money saved by collectively buying expensive items such as computer systems and vehicles could serve as insulation from future cuts. But either by attrition or through layoffs, the police departments would save money by paying fewer employees.
"I don't think any city would be looking at layoffs," Callagy said.