Snoqualmie's new beat? North Bend looks to neighbor as possible police partner

For 37 years, the arm of the law in North Bend has worn a King County Sheriff's uniform.

But rising costs have North Bend city officials wondering whether Snoqualmie Police might be a better fit.

The North Bend City Council voted Oct. 19 to approve a letter of intent to terminate its county police services contract. King County has 45 days to respond; the contract's cool-down terms say the county would cease police services 18 months later.

North Bend officials found no fault with county protection. But potential cost savings of as much as $250,000 annually turned their heads.

"It's nice to have this long litany of options to call on," North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing said. "But at what point do you say, 'I can no longer afford this'? I think that day is coming. Because of our limited ability to raise revenue, there is going to be a point where we have to make a choice."

The decision followed a presentation by Snoqualmie Police Chief Jim Schaffer on how his city might run a joint North Bend-Snoqualmie department. Schaffer said efficiencies of scale through a joint Snoqualmie-North Bend department can beat the county's current price.

"I'm confident we can do it," Schaffer said.

Snoqualmie currently provides a minimum of two officers on duty at all times. The new proposal would put a minimum coverage of two officers in North Bend during the day, two at night.

The contract would add between six and seven officers to the Snoqualmie force specifically for North Bend's needs, incidentally increasing specialty roles within the agency.

"We stand to benefit from any increase," Schaffer said.

Rising costs

In 2011, North Bend's police costs rose by 10.8 percent, or $116,000, to a total of $1.56 million. City Administrator Duncan Wilson said that additional police wage costs and an increasing tally based on local calls for service will continue to drive up the cost of county coverage over the next few years.

"The concern has been whether the current model is sustainable," Wilson said. The difference between county numbers and Snoqualmie's proposal "made us sit up and take notice," he added.

If North Bend votes to terminate the county contract, then both councils would weigh a letter of understanding and then a formal contract over the next eight months.

North Bend was the first city to contract with King County for police services, starting in 1973.

"Neither the mayor, the council or the staff take lightly the termination of a relationship that has gone on for so long," Wilson said. "The quality of the service has been excellent. But many of the same benefits can be had with a Snoqualmie contract, at significant savings.

"If we can achieve the same level of public safety at a lesser price, it's incumbent on us to do that and keep taxes down."

Wilson stressed that the overture to Snoqualmie is not a bargaining tactic.

"The gap is so large, it would take an extraordinary effort from the county to meet the type of savings we're looking at," he said.

Wilson praised Toner's work at North Bend's police chief, and said the city is respectfully considering its options.

"At the same time, when we've got cuts as deep as this, we've got to look at ways to save.

North Bend is fortunate to have a neighbor in a position to help, Wilson added.

"Not all cities have an option as attractive as ours," he said.

Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson sees positives in exploring a joint force. Issues of governance, such as how Snoqualmie's police chief would report jointly to both cities while under the authority of Snoqualmie's mayor, have been discussed in preliminaries.

"I think we'll be able to sort that out," Larson said.

The Snoqualmie City Council learned of the proposal for the first time on Monday evening, Oct. 25. North Bend has made three such approaches to Snoqualmie in the past, most recently eight years ago.

Community policing

For more than a year, Mark Toner has held two roles in the same job. A sergeant with the county force, Toner becomes the North Bend Police Chief when he crosses city limits.

As North Bend's top cop, Toner has gotten to know many people in the community whose activities put them on the wrong side of the law. That experience would have to be rebuilt by a new North Bend agency, though Toner will do his part to pass on local knowledge.

"I want to be as neutral as possible," Toner said. "If the city decides to go with Snoqualmie, I'll do everything I can to make it smooth. Nothing will change in those 18 months."

The King County Sheriff's Department provides North Bend with a "flex model" contract. According to Toner, that means at least one officer, a chief and administrative staff during office hours, with at least one guaranteed officer in off-hours. Toner said that response usually depends on the call, with some complaints drawing as many as six deputies.

"It's the depth of our bench that gets us those bodies," he said.

County deputies respond from North Bend to Fall City and the Snoqualmie summit, and the substation acts as a resource to Valley residents outside city limits. Most deputies are usually roadbound, sometimes not visiting the substation for days. But administrative staff answer drop-ins, keep a public log book, and in the past, have organized charitable donations for the holidays,

The end of the North Bend contract would probably shutter the station. Without a North Bend site, deputies would have their nearest base at Issaquah or Sammamish.

One irony is that, even if Snoqualmie were to become North Bend's police force, King County deputies, helicopter pilots and detectives would respond anyway under a mutual aid agreement.

"If there was something big going on, we're still going to help them," Toner said.

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