Mountain House is still scrambling to establish a long-term police presence in town, but people will see patrol cars around the clock in the community.
A recent reduction in San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office coverage in the unincorporated town of 22,000 people left many worried that dropping from seven deputies and a sergeant on the local beat to two deputies would leave the community vulnerable to crime.
The five members of the Mountain House Community Services District Board of Directors called an emergency meeting Aug. 21, where they authorized General Manager Steven Pinkerton to spend up to $50,000 to hire private security. It didn’t take long for Pinkerton to make contact with Rank Investigation and Protection Inc. of Modesto. Since Monday, the private security company has provided armed patrols for Mountain House.
Pinkerton took over as the CSD general manager at the start of the month and then learned Aug. 15 that Sheriff Patrick Withrow, who took office in January, was pulling deputies from specific beat assignments to general patrol duties as of Aug. 19.
Withrow cited an ongoing labor dispute between the San Joaquin County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors and county administrators, which has caused attrition to point where the department has only half the deputies it should have.
“The bandwidth over the past 10 days is making sure we’re covered on the street,” said Pinkerton.
Between now and the point in the future when the deputies’ association and the board of supervisors reach a compromise and rebuild staffing in Mountain House, Pinkerton expects that Rank Investigation and Protection will fill the gap in public safety coverage.
“They work closely with the city of Modesto and Stanislaus County and have also worked closely with nonprofit neighborhood groups as well,” Pinkerton said.
While the security company employees will look similar to a police force and can respond to reports of crimes, they don’t have the same authority as police officers to detain suspects or make arrests.
Pinkerton said the company will work closely with the sheriff’s department District 8 patrol and take on an observe-and-report role.
Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Andrea Lopez said that the District 8 beat continues to cover southwestern San Joaquin County as it always has, with two deputies on each shift: day, swing and graveyard. The two deputies provided by the Mountain House CSD contract that dates back to 2004 supplement those deputies, as does a school resources officer for Mountain House High School.
“We are doing the best we can with what we have for safety throughout the whole county,” she said.
She said the deputies were eager to get back to full staffing, and a new contract would be the first step in that direction.
“We’re hoping for a quick resolution,” she said, adding that she had worked a local beat in Lathrop, a job she considered preferable to general patrol. “Knowing your beat is an amazing feeling, and I know those deputies are anxious to get back to Mountain House.”
When the Mountain House CSD directors met last week, they had to respond to residents’ questions about why they continued with a law enforcement services contract that had ended up leaving the community of 22,000 with only two officers.
The answer came down to money. The original agreement called for the Mountain House CSD to pay the sheriff’s department $255,436 for two officers and their patrol cars for the first year in 2004-05. The contract was amended in subsequent years, and in 2017-18, the last time the contract was amended, an additional patrol officer and a sergeant cost $530,351 per year. By the time the board approved its 2019-20 budget, it was spending nearly $2 million a year on law enforcement services provided by the sheriff’s department.
Pinkerton told the board that each time contract negotiations came up, previous general managers had to consider whether they would pay just for salaries, or for salaries plus all the costs associated with running a law enforcement agency, including administration, investigations, dispatch and booking of criminal suspects — costs that could have added up to as much as $15 million over the past 10 years.
CSD Director Andy Su said the board kept its eyes on costs.
“We have talked to the sheriffs multiple times,” he said. “Every time we talked to them, instead of the $2 million they were charging, they’d say, ‘We’re going to charge you $4 million.’ If you were the general manager at the time, what would you say? They said, ‘Let’s keep paying $2 million.’”
Director Brian Lucid affirmed that the board had been focused on keeping expenses down.
“It was a conscious decision to not rewrite the contract because we were advised it would double our costs,” he said.
Pinkerton expects to begin looking at long-term solutions the next time the board meets, Sept. 11. Those include potential contracts with other agencies, creation of a new Mountain House police force or some type of hybrid arrangement.