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Should Elma contract police services with sheriff?

ELMA — The city of Elma is taking a serious look to see if it may make sense to contract its police services with the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office, one of many cities on the Harbor to explore the option.

Elma Mayor Dave Osgood said he met recently with Sheriff Rick Scott to explore the idea. 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.

Osgood met with Elma City Council members Monday night for a workshop to go over potential questions that should be posed to the sheriff before a meeting is scheduled later this month.

Besides Elma, the city of McCleary is also exploring the option of contracting out its police services. McCleary Mayor Gary Dent recently laid off a police officer and a police clerk, leaving the chief and two patrol officers — not enough for 24-hour protection of the city. He’s expressed an interest in doing a property tax levy for continued funding of the police department. If not, he says the city may disband the service.

The city of Westport also recently looked at the option in the face of police retirements, but decided to hire its own police chief, instead; and the city of Cosmopolis recently conducted a work session on the idea, where Sheriff Rick Scott made his pitch.

The city of Oakville is the only city on the Harbor that has contracted out its police services at a cost of $110,000 annually for 40 hours of dedicated coverage a week.

Osgood said if McCleary contracts out its police services, both Elma and McCleary could team up and get a better price on services from the county.

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.

Also, Miller said there would be the notion of potentially displacing seven families.

Osgood said that’s why he wants the idea to be looked at now — so that it would impact fewer officers. He added that the officers could get priority being hired by the Sheriff’s Office — and get more money.

“We pay good, but the county pays better,” Osgood said. “If they’re qualified, pass a lie detector test, no problem.”

“They come here as a stepping stone and then leave here anyway,” Boling added.

Osgood says the city spends $1.2 million on its law enforcement budget, which includes the courts. The city would still have to fund its courts, but he sees a potential $250,000 savings if they were to contract services with the county.

“We could take $100,000 of that savings and spend it on our roads,” Osgood said. “We have a tight budget and there are things we could do with that money.”

“I don’t know if cost savings is a good enough reason to do this,” Thurman said.

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, the city does not have an animal control officer.

Osgood said contracting out services would also mean the city wouldn’t have to pay for the costs of maintaining and improving its police department building, which needs a remodel.