HALF MOON BAY, Calif. » Main Street in Half Moon Bay has all the trappings of a quaint, tourist-friendly hamlet: a repertory theater, a collection of restaurants and more used books than one could ever read.
But what this coastal town, about 25 miles south of San Francisco, may soon not have is even more notable.
At an emotionally charged meeting Saturday, the City Council — saddled with a $500,000 deficit — voted to eliminate the town’s Police Department. That inspired tears from the city’s mayor, Naomi Patridge, who said the loss of the police, whose duties will now be handled by the county sheriff, was a blow to civic pride and the town’s very identity.
"It’s really hard for me to accept the fact that we’re not going to have our police," said Patridge, 70, a retired school district employee who has spent her entire life in Half Moon Bay. "We’re going to have the sheriff, and I think they’re going to do a great job. But it’s not going to be the same."
Patridge wasn’t the only person crying; two of the city’s police officers also broke down while speaking to the council. Nor is Half Moon Bay the only town in California forced to drastic measures to address dire financial straits; nearby San Carlos also recently outsourced its policing to the sheriff. Vallejo, meanwhile, northeast of San Francisco, declared bankruptcy in 2008, and a number of other cities have considered similar actions, including disincorporation.
But unlike Vallejo — a blue-collar former Navy town bordering the waters of San Francisco Bay — Half Moon Bay is a world apart: a comfortable surf-and-skate town on the Pacific whose annual pumpkin festival draws thousands of gourd fans from around the world. Blessed with sweeping ocean views, the city has both beachy bed-and-breakfasts and a Ritz Carlton, complete with a pair of handsome seaside golf courses.
"This is a very sad day in Half Moon Bay history," said George Muteff, who has made the city his home for 30 years. "But the seeds of this day were planted years ago."
Indeed, Half Moon Bay had been struggling with the impact of an $18 million settlement from a lawsuit filed by a local developer over a parcel of land the city had apparently accidentally flooded. The city, with a current budget of $9.8 million, was also hit hard by the recession, which torpedoed city tax revenues and depressed the tourism trade.
In the fall, the city’s voters rejected a sales tax measure that would have helped close the budget gap. The Police Department, the largest part of the budget, had already been slashed. Layoffs resulted in it losing more than a quarter of its employees, leaving it with just eight officers and four sergeants.
"It’s my opinion that the current staff levels are not sustainable," Chief Lee Violett, himself a part-timer because of budget cuts, said at the meeting Saturday.
This year, the city began accepting applications for other agencies to take over policing the city, which has about 12,000 residents and small pockets of gang activity and drug dealing. Two entities applied, including the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, which offered the city four basic options, a kind of elaborate fast-food menu for law enforcement with varying staffing levels for a set cost.
On Saturday, the council agreed to negotiate with the sheriff to take over services under a plan that would offer, among other things, six full-time deputies, a full-time record technician and three part-time "community service" officers responsible for things like parking enforcement and traffic control. The savings to Half Moon Bay? About $500,000, Violett said.
The proposed deal also came with an assurance that Half Moon Bay’s officers would be offered jobs with the Sheriff’s Office, which has also had to tighten its belt, recently cutting two dozen jobs and $5.6 million from its budget.
"We will do everything in our power to take care of them," Sheriff Greg Munks said of the Half Moon Bay officers.
But for officers like Dennis Loubal, a 14-year Half Moon Bay veteran, simply having the assurance of a job was not enough to prevent tears. As he stood to speak to the council, Loubal began to sob, even as he told the city’s leaders that the end of his department "makes the most sense for the city."
"It’s saying goodbye," Loubal said later.
Patridge was also overcome by the seeming weight of the vote, which was unanimous, stopping the meeting at one point to gather her emotions. As a young woman, Patridge had done volunteer work for the city’s police. And now, she said, she feared that they were gone for good.
"Unless we win the lotto," she said, "they’re not going to be back."