The cities of Ventura and Fillmore have turned down proposals to discuss merging police and fire services with Santa Paula.
Therefore, Santa Paula next week will decide whether to pursue talks with the Ventura County sheriff's and fire departments. Such a move is aimed at stabilizing the city's $9-million general fund budget, of which the largest expenditure is for police and fire protection.
Last month, the Santa Paula City Council voted to send letters to the cities of Fillmore and Ventura and to the county asking how much it would cost to merge districts or to contract to obtain the two critical services.
While the two cities declined to consider the options, Supervisor Judy Mikels, writing on behalf of the county's fire department, and Sheriff Bob Brooks responded more positively.
In his letter, Brooks said the county had been providing contract law enforcement services to cities for 40 years and would be willing to conduct a feasibility study for Santa Paula.
The city would be responsible for the $22,500 cost of the study, which would take about two months to complete.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said he thought the Santa Paula council would agree on Monday to have him continue talks with both county departments. He will report back to the panel Dec. 1. But he wasn't prepared to predict what the city will ultimately do.
"I think it really depends," he said Thursday. "We're not going to save money. The question is, how much more money do we need to spend? What services will we get?"
Currently, Santa Paula spends $4 million a year for its police department, which employs 24 full-time officers, and $1 million for its fire department.
Police wages are the lowest in the county, Bobkiewicz said, with officers earning from $1,524 to $1,977 every two weeks. That is 30% to 60% less than comparable agencies pay, he said.
Bobkiewicz said he expected the city would end up paying more if it contracted with the Sheriff's Department. "I think what we're going to find out is, because the salary ranges are so different and because we would be adding numbers ... it will cost more."
But it would be necessary, he said, to maintain adequate city services. "It's not to say that things in Santa Paula are unsafe now," he said. "But down the line, Santa Paula cannot risk being perceived as falling down."
In addition, the city has only 11 full-time firefighters, supplemented by paid volunteers.
"Any other community our size, they went to a full-time fire department 20 or 30 years ago," Bobkiewicz said.
The county fire department has never contracted to provide services to cities or annexed a city into the fire district, he said, so the city and county would be starting from scratch in formulating options.