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Officers in flux 

A quarter of Morro Bay's cops left the department in 2012

By most measures, policing the quiet town of Morro Bay is a pretty sweet gig. The scenery is pleasant; it’s seldom hot; and serious crimes simply aren’t a major issue. All that’s missing from the cushy job, it turns out, are action and money.

With roughly 10,000 year-round residents, Morro Bay is the smallest incorporated city in San Luis Obispo County, and its police department is the second lowest paid. Wages were frozen in 2006, and according to Police Officers Association President Henry Cantu, officers are paying more than ever into their health-care plans.

The starting pay works out to about $53,800 a year, and opportunities for promotions, growth, and special assignments are limited. By contrast, a cadet in the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department makes $10,000 more, and a full-fledged deputy takes home an extra $20,000.

In September, police volunteer Ken Vesterfelt warned the city council that the money saved from low wages comes with costly repercussions.

“There’s a crisis in the police department,” he said. “We’re on track to lose half our officers.”

When positions at the sheriff’s department opened up this year, several Morro Bay Police Department employees jumped at the opportunity—including Chief Tim Olivas, who took over the county’s second highest public safety position in May. As undersheriff, Olivas enjoys a yearly salary of $170,472, a sum $40,000 higher than his maximum earning potential with Morro Bay, according to public salary schedules.

In a phone interview, interim Police Chief Mike Lewis confirmed that a dispatcher and two patrol officers have resigned from the Morro Bay department to follow Olivas to the countywide enforcement agency, citing more money as their main reason for leaving. A third patrol officer has received a conditional offer from the sheriff’s department, but hadn’t yet left as of press time. According to spokesperson Tony Cipolla, the sheriff’s department had 13 patrol positions to fill, and more officers came from Morro Bay than from any other agency.

Lewis said the patrol officers who are leaving Morro Bay are mostly on the younger side, with two to six years of experience, but a sergeant scheduled to retire this year will take 33 years of experience and community knowledge from the department.

After years of budget reductions, the Morro Bay Police Department has been stripped down to 18 sworn officers: a chief, a commander, and 16 field officers of varying ranks. The potential loss of four bodies in one year translates to a 25 percent turnaround. Vesterfelt hinted that another four officers were looking at transfer opportunities, but New Times couldn’t confirm that rumor. Lewis hadn’t heard anything, and neither had the local leader of the Police Officers Association

“We’re a close enough family,” Lewis said. “They usually let you know.”

In his last report as chief, Olivas wrote that he “addressed the retention and recruitment problems experienced by most of the smaller police departments” by reinstating the school resource officer for Morro Bay High School and shaking up the department’s organizational structure, which he described as “top heavy with supervisors.”

There were four sergeants and five corporals in middle management, but Olivas began phasing out corporals through attrition, replacing that rank with four senior officers and two detectives, a change he hoped would create a clear and reasonable path for promotions.

Given the current rate of departures, it would seem that Olivas’ steps didn’t go far enough, but Lewis said a department in a quiet town will always have retention issues.

“Officers newer in the business want to go out, stay active, and put criminals away,” he said. “We tend to lose junior officers due to the slower pace around here.”

According to annual department reports, the last homicide in Morro Bay took place three years ago, breaking an eight-year cycle without a murder. Rapes and robberies are rare, and gangs are nonexistent. Essentially, every officer—regardless of rank—spends most of his or her time cruising the streets looking for speeders and drunks.

Hiring and training a new officer can take up to six months, according to Cantu. Screening applicants, performing background checks, and interviewing finalists is a three-month process every time the department fills a vacancy. Then, a field training officer must spend another three months familiarizing new officers with the community and department protocols, he said.

Lewis worried that the time and money spent training young officers is wasted when they’re destined to leave the department in search of better pay within a few short years. Morro Bay City Manager Andrea Lueker said the current salary schedule is all the city can afford, but raises might be possible when city revenues improve, she added.

“It’s a balancing act,” she said. “When you start negotiating increases for one group, you have to look at all the others.”

Though Grover Beach pays its police officers slightly less than Morro Bay, Grover City Manager Bob Perrault said their department has only lost one officer in recent memory due to pay. He said they try to vary assignments as much as possible and have created special enforcement teams, led by senior officers, to focus patrols on specific neighborhoods.

Morro Bay is in the last stages of hiring a permanent chief to replace Olivas, and Mayor-Elect Jamie Irons said he was optimistic that the new chief could further address the city’s retention problems—though he wasn’t eager to push for raises.

“Some level of attrition may have to be a product we have to live with,” Irons said.

Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at npowell@newtimesslo.com.

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