Cities around the Harbor are all dealing with the same issues: Not a lot of money, but rising costs. And the biggest line item for most budgets is law enforcement.
After the state took away funding sources for training new officers, Sheriff Rick Scott says it’s not very surprising that so many small cities on the Harbor have been giving him a call, asking for cost quotes. Costs to train a new officer or deputy could easily exceed $100,000 — and even officers can’t just go right on the job, they have to be partnered up with an experienced officer.
The cities of McCleary and Elma are the latest to express an interest in contracting out police services. The Elma City Council conducted a work session on April 28 to talk about what potential questions to ask the sheriff before bringing him in for a formal presentation. The McCleary City Council was expected to do a work session on May 7.
In Elma’s case, the city police could see two retirements soon, including its chief and lieutenant; and one of its officers may take a job out of state. That would leave three vacancies on the seven-man force. Elma Mayor Dave Osgood thinks the city can save $250,000 or so on its $1.2 million law enforcement budget by contracting out services.
In McCleary, the situation is a bit more dire.
McCleary Mayor Gary Dent has said if the city can’t generate more revenue, they will have no choice but to cut more services and disband the McCleary Police Department by next year. There’s talk of a potential property tax levy to put on the November ballot. A finance committee has looked into the options to see if it could be cheaper to just contract out services. McCleary has a law enforcement budget of $533,820, down from the $646,061 budgeted in 2013. The city laid off a half-time police clerk and a police officer in January. The city now has just two officers plus the police chief. That’s not enough for 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage in the city.
Part of the conversation, notes McCleary Councilman Jeff Catterlin, is whether to just contract out services to the Sheriff’s Office.
“The sheriff gave us an approximate cost figure of $150,000 to $200,000 to provide McCleary the same level of protection that Oakville receives,” Catterlin wrote in an email. “But, also, that we could purchase more coverage if we wished. If McCleary and Elma both decided to go with a contract, the Sheriff’s Office would be able to hire additional deputies that would be designated for East County, making response times much quicker.”
Elma Mayor Dave Osgood says he thinks if both cities contract out services, they could work together on a better deal.
“We’re already 15 minutes away from McCleary and, right now, I have one guy always in East County and guys that float back and forth between the west and east end,” Scott said. “If both cities were to contract, we would have at least two guys on the east end and always have somebody within five minutes of one of those towns.”
“We’re not advocating this at all, but it’s happening throughout the state. Small towns in particular are really feeling the crunch with the tax base with police, fire, streets and water and everything communities need. Back in the 1950s and 1960s people tended to shop within their own town and they would have larger tax base. … With Internet and technology, smaller communities just don’t have the tax base they used to have,” Scott said.
“The cost of doing law enforcement is just going up,” Scott added. “All around the state, cities are taking a look at this. Sometimes, for smaller cities, it’s easier and cheaper to just contract out services rather than pay to maintain equipment, insurance, buildings — all of that. And we’re doing that anyway. … Once they get over the fact they don’t have their own guys driving their own cars anymore, the level of service they’re getting is as good or better than they’ve been getting.”
The Sheriff’s Office already contracts services out with the city of Oakville, for 40 hours of dedicated coverage, at a cost of $110,000.
“And, for a community of 700 people, it saved a good chunk of money, some $200,000 in costs over time for liability and medical insurance,” Oakville Mayor Thomas Sims said back in March.
Several Sheriff’s Offices around the state contract with cities and towns for services. Shoreline and Sammamish are two that are policed by King County; Chelan County provides services for Cashmere and Leavenworth among others, Scott said.
In recent months, Sheriff Scott has given presentations before the cities of Cosmopolis and Westport.
“If memory serves, this will be the fourth time since I was hired as chief that a ‘services contract’ has been proposed,” Cosmopolis Police Chief Casey Stratton said during the presentation back in March. None have been enacted. Cosmopolis currently has a clerk, two officers and a deputy chief led by Chief Stratton, who also takes a patrol shift.
The city is close to hiring a third officer, which would provide the city with policing 24 hours day, seven days per week, he said. Cosmopolis planned two budgets for 2014, Stratton said. One with four officers was a little more than $500,000 and the other, counting the new hire, totals $668,148, he said. The overall budget for Cosmopolis is around $4 million a year.
The sheriff estimated it would take the equivalent of five deputies or so to cover the area full time, plus expenses that would be negotiated. So, if Cosmopolis city government opts for 24/7 coverage, it could cost about the same as the force costs now.
Costs can vary depending on the amount of service selected by the town contracting for service, Scott said.
In Westport, the conversation turned to contracting out services with the Sheriff’s Office after Westport Police Chief Bill Gibson announced he would be retiring effective July 4 and another officer would be leaving soon, as well.
Currently, the Westport Police Department is budgeted for a total of seven officers, including a chief, a lieutenant and five patrol officers.
In addition, the department has one full-time police clerk and another who works half-time.
The department has eight vehicles and depends on grant funding for patrol car replacements.
The cost for those services for 2014 is budgeted at close to $900,000.
The same level of services under contract with Grays Harbor County for the same number of officers is estimated to cost approximately $700,000 per year, a more than 20 percent savings annually. Although, Mayor Michael Bruce said that the city can’t even afford the existing $900,000 budget.
“That’s the problem that we are trying to deal with,” Bruce said at a town hall in March. “We haven’t bought a new patrol car in the last four or five years and we’ve been an officer down for a long time because of a lack of funding. … We have to make some difficult decisions about how to fund the services our citizens want and expect. With our funding shortfall and both the police chief and lieutenant retiring, it’s like a perfect storm. We need to consider all our options, and this is just one of them. In my position as mayor, I’m the one that gets to be the bearer of bad news. I want your community protected. We’re just doing our due diligence here.”
Last month, the Westport City Council agreed to work with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to start advertising for a new police chief to replace Gibson after several months of conversation with the Sheriff’s Office.
Scott said last week it’s still possible Westport will want to contract with the Sheriff’s Office after the advertising process happens.
Mayor Bruce says he has three council members that don’t want to see that happen.
“But we actually have four openings at our police department,” Bruce said on Tuesday. “We have one officer about to leave us for Hoquiam — and we’re not getting people to apply and that’s systemic countywide. We cant hire from a pool of zero. We need applicants.”
In 11 years, Bruce said Westport has gone through 21 patrol officers in its five positions.
“I spoke to Mayor Dent of McCleary about this last week and the bottom line is that none of us can fully fund our police force anymore,” Bruce said. “We can’t pay them what they need to keep them in our cities and not transfer somewhere else and we can’t pay for new vehicles. This isn’t just Westport. This is all over the county.”
Daily World reporter Erin Hart and South Beach Bulletin Editor Barb Aue contributed to this story.