Police cooperative by the numbers

Stephen Floyd

City Council members in South Lewis County are largely optimistic a Joint Law Enforcement Agency between Napavine, Winlock, Toledo and Vader could benefit their communities, though a final draft of the agreement will likely be unavailable until the end of this year.

Spearheaded by Vader since last December, the current proposal for a joint agency would combine the police personnel and resources of the four cities under an Agency Board, consisting of the four mayors plus a Lewis County Sheriff’s Office representative. The board would in turn oversee law enforcement coverage for the cities, who would continue to pay the agency based on population, area, calls for service and patrol needs.

Judging from the terms of the draft, first made available Feb. 11, a majority of City Council members have said they are in support of entertaining the idea of a cooperative police force, while only a few have said they do not wish to pursue the proposal at all.

Napavine for cooperative, though finances a large concern

While officials with the City of Napavine have said they are in support of a joint agency, they have also said the proposal has too many financial bugs to garner their approval just yet.

Council Member Bob Wheeler said, if the goal of an agency is to save each city money, then some language in the proposed contract would take away from such a goal.

“I am afraid that the present draft misses the mark in that effort because it maintains the status quo,” said Wheeler in an email to Mayor John Sayers dated Feb. 20.

According to the contract, cities would submit their remaining police budgets upon creation of the Agency Board, and future budgets would take into account present and anticipated law enforcement expenses. Wheeler said this would largely keep expenses the same instead of lowering them, and suggested an updated draft of the agreement include anticipated expenses for agency employees as well operations and maintenance, so city leaders know what specific numbers they would be committing to.

Council Member Lionel Pinn also said he would like to know how the agency plans to generate and distribute income, if at all.

In an email to Sayers dated March 7, Pinn asked how fines from traffic infractions and court costs would be divided among the cities, as well as the likelihood of combining the municipal court systems utilized by Napavine, Winlock and Vader. He also asked if the Agency Board would act as a taxing entity, stating he would support no greater than a 0.02 percent property tax to fund the cooperative.

After the council’s regular meeting March 12, Sayers stated he would support contracting with the municipal court in Winlock so cities would have to pay for just one judge, one prosecutor and one clerk. This desire has also been expressed in the other cities at different times during joint agency discussions, though no official proposal has yet come forth.

While other members of the Napavine City Council have yet to comment publicly on their impression of the agency proposal, Sayers stated during the March 12 meeting the concept should be given ample consideration before council members draw their conclusions.

“We’re taking this very cautiously,” he said of the proposal. “It takes a lot of work, a lot of steps.”

Toledo on the fence, but encouraged by prospects

Toledo City Council members have said they do not feel a need to find an alternative to their current police force, though they remain open to discussing options.

Mayor Jerry Pratt encouraged council members during a Feb. 19 workshop to consider the potential long-term benefits of pooling resources, which he said could include a combined municipal court system, a detective to share between the cities and perhaps even a South Lewis County Jail. But he added council members should take their time when considering the potential outcomes, stating none of them should feel they are being rushed toward make a decision.

“This is going to be harder than the [city] budgets ever where, when it comes down to deciding if we’re going to do it or not,” said Pratt, who offered his personal support for the idea of a joint agency.

Council Member Carol Hill said, while she sees the benefit of having more officers available to cover shifts, she does not necessarily feel they would make up for having a familiar relationship with the officers in town.

“They know who is who, and who is doing what,” she said of current officers, stating she was not presently in support of a cooperative but would be open to new proposals.

Council Member Mike Thomas also opposed a cooperative, stating he feels the task of reforming the police department would be too challenging if Toledo were to opt out after joining the agency. But he also acknowledged the financial bind currently before Toledo PD, as the city has had to cut employee hours and increase utility taxes to prevent law enforcement from putting too much of a strain on the general fund.

“I’m really worried about our police guys,” he said, stating he is willing to entertain options that would improve working conditions for Toledo officers in addition to saving money. Brim rd.

In support of a cooperative was Council Member Steve Dobosh, who said he has lived through many of the council’s concerns when his employer, Lewis County Department of Public Works, combined their shops in Toledo, Onalaska and Mossyrock.

Dobosh explained, after the new “super shop” was established in Onalaska, residents did encounter a disconnect with employees who focused on one area for a period of time before moving on to another. But he said residents eventually got used to and accepted the new style of work within about a year’s time.

He added there are likely many law enforcement grants available for small, rural communities and said a joint agency may carry more weight when applying if multiple cities are taking part.

“I think it’s a great big win-win situation,” said Dobosh, acknowledging such a large change in city policy is likely to make officials and residents feel uncomfortable. “I’m for progress and I’m looking out for these guy’s [police officers] future, too.”

Winlock putting up biggest fight so far

Members of the Winlock City Council have expressed strong opposition toward a joint agency, with Council Member Dennis Korpi even refusing to attend a workshop March 11 in protest of the concept.

Kopri stated during the Feb. 25 council meeting he feels a cooperative would task too few officers with patrolling too large an area, turning local departments into reactive entities responding to crimes after they occur.

“I am not for this and I will not attend the workshop,” said Korpi Feb. 25, who did take his seat after the March 11 workshop in time for the regular council meeting.

Those who did attend the workshop said they were concerned with the way proposed services would be shared between the cities, with Council Member Pat Anderson asking if it would be plausible for cities to receive equal coverage, instead of by a percentage based on population, land area and calls for service.

Police Chief Terry Williams said some kind of formula would be needed as those factors do matter, and the four cities involved each have differing needs.

“We’re not equal entities at all,” said Williams, stating local economic cores are also a factor.

Council Member Denise Green said she felt frustrated with the way information has been shared among the four cities involved, stating she believed Mayor Glen Cook should have been more vocal in sharing the reactions of other officials.

“I received most of my information—totally dumbfounded me and came as a total shock—from a Chronicle article about what every mayor had to say—but our own—about this consolidation of police,” she said.

From what she read, Green stated she does not believe the other cities are setting goals based on financial and political realities, such as the hiring of additional officers and the consolidation of local municipal courts. She added unaddressed union issues were still a concern and, when asked by Williams if any part of the proposed cooperative was worth exploring, she said, “No, no.”

“I’m not seeing any pros to this,” echoed Council Member Barbara Pedersen. “I’m seeing more cons than pros.”

Williams commented Green, and others, should not depend too heavily on what they read in the newspapers and said he had spoken with The Chronicle’s Editor-in-Chief earlier that day about inaccuracies in the article cited by Green, stating The Chronicle “didn’t do their homework.”

While speaking his peace on the proposal, Williams encouraged council members to pursue alternatives to what they find unacceptable or displeasing, stating the idea of a combined police force is worth looking at.

“I don’t want to see this concept die,” said Williams, stating it was a significant accomplishment for the mayors to come together and put the idea on paper. “It can work, and I think it can work well.”

Williams stated he has researched such proposals in the past and said, according to what he learned from the way Cle Elum provides law enforcement to South Cle Elum and Roslyn, if one city contracted out their police services to the other three, it would produce the desired results in the most straightforward way.

“It just seems simple enough that it can be done by contract,” said Williams, whose department similarly contracted its services to Vader during 2012.

If a contract option, or a Metro Police Department in Williams’ terms, was chosen instead of the current proposal, it would eliminate the need to create an Agency Board as the council of the lead city would take on budgetary responsibilities. Additionally, each city would be required to submit their own contract, eliminating the need for every city to approve the same document.

Williams said a Metro Police Department does require more compromise than a cooperative, as the other three cities would surrender direct control of law enforcement budgets and policies. But he added the model established by Cle Elum provides a good example of how to maintain a sense of ownership for residents and officials while contracting for services.

When asked if Winlock would do well as the lead city for a Metro Police Department, or a Joint Law Enforcement Agency, members of the council said they did not have enough information to adequately answer the question. Williams, however, said Winlock would serve well as the lead city, as would Napavine.

Vader still optimistic a cooperative will pass soon

Vader Mayor Ken Smith has said it is his hope to see an approved police cooperative draft by mid-April, though no official deadline is in place.

“We have to balance the need for urgency with the determination to not put pressure on the councils,” said Smith during the March 5 Vader City Council meeting, stating he intends the final draft to be a reflection of each city’s interests and concerns.

Smith had first proposed the idea of a police cooperative to his council Dec. 4 after pitching the concept to the other mayors. At the time, Vader’s prime applicant for Police Chief said he would not serve without a cooperative in place for support, though he withdrew his candidacy Jan. 9 in light of a protracted hiring process.

A cooperative has become Vader’s primary goal for law enforcement while the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office is temporarily responding to 911 calls within the city.

“I think we’re getting a bargain for services in this brief, interim period,” said Smith.

The temporary services, however, are scheduled to expire April 30 and a police cooperative remains the only law enforcement option detailed by city leaders during recent meetings. While the hiring of a new chief has been mentioned, and even insisted upon by residents during public comment, Smith has contended council members will be able to make a best-informed decision after the draft for a cooperative has been completed.

While no members of the city council have openly opposed a cooperative since a draft was presented to them Feb. 19, they have voiced concern regarding how officers within and without the city would be able to provide coverage.

Council Member Janet Charlton asked if cities would receive patrol and emergency response coverage equal to the percentage of funds paid into the cooperative, which City Attorney Jim Buzzard replied is a detail that needs to be worked out among each of the councils.

“That’s not the intent and that’s what needs to be talked about,” he said.

Council Member Andy Wilson pointed out police reservists are not allowed to respond to calls outside the city limits and asked how they may be able to assist when they are hired by one city and need to respond to another.

Buzzard said reservists under the proposed agreement would be employees of the Agency Board and would be restricted by board policies and jurisdiction, which would be another detail up for council consideration.

Wilson added any agency would need to be proactive and heavy on patrols, as many petty crimes like vandalism can be prevented when perpetrators believe an officer may be just around the corner.

Those who have shown direct support for the agreement have been Council Members Rodney Allison and Kevin Flynn, with Allison stating he is in support of municipalities working together to share resources.

“I’ve always been for all these inter-locals,” said Allison.

In the mean time, Vader has incurred $8,452 in fees to Buzzard for drafting the agreement since December, though Smith has said these expenses are outweighed by the funding saved through using the Sheriff’s Office for 911 services, which City Hall estimates to be a monthly savings of around $6,000.

While Smith had approached the other mayors for financial support of the legal efforts to draft the agreement, he said they declined on the basis it was Vader’s document drafted upon Vader’s initiative.