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Elma, McCleary latest to talk about contracting police services with Sheriff

The cities of McCleary and Elma are taking a hard look at whether to contract police services out to the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office — or maintain their own police force.

Elma and McCleary are the latest cities on the Harbor to take a look at the issue with Sheriff Rick Scott giving presentations in recent months to the Westport and Cosmopolis city councils. The city of Oakville pays the Sheriff’s Office $110,000 to receive 40 hours of dedicated coverage a week.

In McCleary’s case, the decision lies with its city council and mayor whether to go out to the people for a property tax increase to maintain its current police force or to contract out services. There’s a question if the public would support a property tax increase.

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. A finance committee has looked into the options to see if it could be cheaper to just contract out services. 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.

The McCleary City Council will conduct a work session at 7 p.m., Wednesday, May 7 at McCleary City Hall to potentially seek voter approval of a property tax increase to maintain the current level of public safety for police. The session is not geared as a public hearing, but it is a meeting the public can attend.

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.

Sheriff Rick Scott says he’s not been the one approaching cities with the idea to contract out services. They’ve been coming to him. Cities are just seeing their tax revenue dry up in recent years.

“Smaller communities just don’t have the tax base they used to have,” Scott said.

One of the big costs to cities is the recent decision by the state Legislature to no longer help in the training costs of municipal officers. If a retirement happens or an officer leaves, Osgood said the city of Elma would be on the hook for at least $100,000 in costs. Plus, Scott notes, even then officers can’t just go right on the job, they have to be partnered up with an experienced officer.

Osgood said the Elma Police Department 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.

“The cost of doing law enforcement is just going up,” Scott said. “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 is as they’re getting is as good or better than they’ve been getting.

“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 added. “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.”

Elma City Council members met during a work session on April 28 to talk about the issue.

Councilwoman Debbie Thurman said she’s worried if the city contracts out services that an officer won’t always be in the city to meet resident needs.

“Would we have the same coverage response?” added Councilman Tom Boling.

Osgood said that the city could contract for 24-hour coverage with deputies patrolling the city consistently or to stay within three minutes of the city limits.

Councilman Pat Miller says that he would want to make sure there are ways out of any kind of contract so that the city could get out if they wanted to re-start its own force. Miller noted a deep dissatisfaction with the city’s contract with Fire District 5.

“We have no control of that contract,” Miller said. “The costs just go up.”

“We need to build in ways to get out and keep control of the costs,” added Councilman Charles Butterfield.

Boling said the big thing with him is he wants to see coverage as good, if not better than what the city has now.

If teens are smoking at the high school, and someone at the high school complains to police, he would want to see a response, not a deputy shrugging his shoulders because he has bigger fish to fry, Boling said.

“We would want someone to be proactive,” Boling said.

One added benefit of contracting with the Sheriff’s Office is utilizing the county’s animal-control services. Currently, neither McCleary nor Elma has an animal control officer.