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In Half Moon Bay, Deep Cuts Reshape City Hall

Visitors enjoy Pillar Point Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
Visitors enjoy Pillar Point Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

Half a century ago, before the picturesque seaside town of Half Moon Bay, Calif., decided to incorporate, residents had to call the county sheriff's office to report crimes.

In fact, one big reason Half Moon Bay decided to incorporate was to have its own police force, says Mayor Naomi Patridge.

"It makes you a city, it really does," she says.

So Patridge can't help thinking the city took a big step backward this year, when Half Moon Bay — struggling with falling tax revenues and a large lawsuit judgment — was forced to disband its police force. Starting this summer, policing duties will be turned back over to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, and local police will no longer walk the beat in Half Moon Bay.

"I can't go up to them and say, 'Hi, Dennis' or 'Hi, Joe' or 'Hi, Sergeant," Patridge says. "Now I have to look at a name tag."

Like thousands of cities and towns across the nation, Half Moon Bay has had to cut services and lay off personnel in the face of a long and persistent economic downturn.

But like some towns, it has also gone further — disbanding whole departments and sharply scaling back its ambitions. The city has also decided to disband its parks and recreation department, contracting its functions out to a neighboring town. And Patridge says more cuts may be coming.

Long Overdue

Some people in Half Moon Bay say consolidating services with nearby cities and towns makes sense, given the town's dire fiscal condition.

The police department has already suffered so many layoffs and cutbacks that Police Chief Lee Violett, who was appointed less than a year ago, questions whether it has the resources to function as an independent agency.

"What you have now is a police department that is just barely able to keep its head above water in terms of providing 24/7 coverage," Violett says. "There's no fluff whatsoever in the department. We have sergeants that are doing captains' work, and to some degree we have sergeants doing officers' work.

"There's certainly a lot of savings to be realized when you use the capacity of larger agencies to spread those costs around, so you're not supporting it all yourself," he says. "So I think what you're seeing now is probably long overdue. I think a lot of people in Half Moon Bay would say maybe we should have looked at this a year ago."

That's not to say Violett is very happy about what's happening.

"In my 38 years of police work, this is the first department I've been involved with where we're actually looking at terminating the ... department as a municipal entity," he says.

Economic Downturn

Half Moon Bay's troubles began when it was sued by a developer who had been denied the right to build a subdivision in town. A judge awarded him $38 million, costing the city about a million dollars a year, or one-eighth its annual budget.

"The first major cut was devastating for everybody, but we thought we can handle this," Patridge says. "Then as time went on, the economics got very, very bad."

Half Moon Bay sits on the Pacific coast about 40 minutes south of San Francisco. Because it's separated by mountains from Silicon Valley, it has managed to maintain a small-town charm. Its Main Street is lined with quiet shops and restaurants that draw tourists from around the Bay Area.

Over the years, Half Moon Bay has become heavily dependent on sales and hotel tax revenues, but with the recession and the downturn in Silicon Valley, those revenues dropped sharply.

Last year, the city asked residents to approve an increase in the sales tax from 9.25 percent to 10.25 percent, which officials said would go a long way toward easing the fiscal crisis. City officials warned that if the referendum failed, wholesale cuts would have to take place.

True to its small town feel, Half Moon Bay hosts the 37th Annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off. Here, Ron Root of Citrus Heights, Calif., celebrates winning first place — with his 1,535-pound pumpkin.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Getty Images
True to its small town feel, Half Moon Bay hosts the 37th Annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off. Here, Ron Root of Citrus Heights, Calif., celebrates winning first place — with his 1,535-pound pumpkin.

To some residents, like Bill Bakalenikoff, the extra taxes were a small price to pay to keep city services going.

"Nobody likes to pay taxes," he says. "But then again, if you like city services, if you want a smooth-running community, you got to pay for it."

But many businesses opposed the increase, noting that it would have given the city one of the highest sales taxes in the Bay Area.

"I said, 'What, are these people nuts? Who's going to vote for any kind of tax increase in this environment?' " says Charles Nelson, who owns Toque Blanche, a kitchen store on Main Street.

"I didn't want people, when they think of Half Moon Bay, to think of high sales tax," Nelson says. "I didn't see how that would be good for business, and if it wasn't good for business it ultimately wouldn't bring in the revenue that the city needed."

Big Cutbacks

When the referendum lost in November, city officials quietly set to work disbanding some departments. About half the city's staff has now been laid off, Patridge says.

"It's awful, because most of the people we've laid off are residents, who live here, and you've coached their daughter and you've worked with them," she says.

But Patridge concedes that the loss of the police and parks departments hasn't yet created the kind of public outcry she had expected, and at least so far many residents seem indifferent to what's happening.

That may have something to do with the demographic changes at work in Half Moon Bay, which has attracted a lot of newcomers in recent years, Nelson says.

"The longer you've been in town and the more associated you are with the town, probably the bigger deal it is," he says. "A certain part of the population is sort of a bedroom community, and they go over the hill to work, and maybe their hearts aren't so much in the city as the rest of us. But for those of us who have been here a long time and have deep roots in the community, it's very hard."

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Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.