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Shaking up the beats: North Bend weighs resources, community ties, in police service decision

When a plane crashed into Mount Si at 2 a.m. Feb. 15, the King County Sheriff’s Office responded within minutes, and the county rescue helicopter, Guardian One, was in the air within the hour. By daylight, the Sheriff’s Office had dispatched more than 40 people, many of them volunteers, to the crash site to locate and remove the three victims.

Later that same day, Snoqualmie police officers ran an errand to pick up the children’s books that they would read to Cascade View Elementary School students in March, through the Badges and Books program that Officer Nigel Draveling introduced to Snoqualmie last year. After reading to children, the officers, from Snoqualmie's department, Washington State Patrol, and the North Bend substation, donated books to the young readers.

In one day, both agencies showed their strongest assets in the debate over North Bend’s next police services contract: availability of expertise and resources, and a strong connection with the community.

“You’ll find people expressing both views,” said North Bend’s city administrator Duncan Wilson. “Snoqualmie’s officers would probably have a better working knowledge of the community… they’re more involved with the community on a day to day basis, whereas the sheriff’s department, speaking in generalities, they’re not tied here as a dedicated force.”

On the other hand, Wilson continued, “We get excellent service from King County, we have an excellent chief, we have response when we need it, and it’s extensive.”

Granted, the plane crash was rare — less than 100 fatal plane crashes have occurred in Washington since 2000 — and it didn’t occur inside North Bend’s city limits. However, since the sheriff’s department is also the city’s police force, it would have received the same response if it had. A March 30 break-in and shooting in the Si View neighborhood drew a significant response from the sheriff, including five patrolmen, five detectives, a canine unit, staff from the major crimes unit, and a chaplain.

That extra support from the county will show up on North Bend’s bill in two years, on Exhibit B. This document itemizes the city’s share, based on its number of calls for service, of department-wide expenses (patrol cars, equipment, administrative salaries, etc.), but major events take about two years to appear on Exhibit B. Each contracting city pays estimated costs in the spring, and gets a final report of actual costs about four months later. If the city’s costs were less than Exhibit B estimated, the city gets a credit. If the city had more major incidents than estimated on Exhibit B, the county absorbs the greater costs for that year.

“They have it, usually, pretty darn close,” Wilson said of the estimates. “We don’t ever get what I’d call a windfall.”

However, Wilson said the city has been seeing steady increases in law enforcement costs, some of it driven by Exhibit B. For 2012, he said, the cost of police increased 8 percent, and for 2011, the increase had been 11 percent. In 2010, the budget for law enforcement increased 10.3 percent, and the line item of the county contract increased 11.76 percent, to $1.2 million.

Part of that can be explained by the 2009 annexation of the Tanner area into city limits. “Our calls for service went up 14 percent for 2009,” North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner said. Since the Exhibit B document is

By line item, the biggest increase in law enforcement costs for 2012 was the jail budget, which increased $33,000, or about 43 percent, but is not a part of the sheriff's contract. The sheriff’s contract increased 2 percent, to $1,206,260, but personnel and overhead costs (the city pays half the salaries of the police chief and two administrative staff members, and half the cost of renting the North Bend substation) decreased, by nearly 3 and 12 percent respectively. For 2011, the contract cost decreased by less than 0.5 percent, and the biggest increase was in personnel, 11.54 percent. In 2010, the contract increased almost 12 percent, and the jail budget, almost 19 percent.

Wilson said the often double-digit cost increases are what restarted a conversation the North Bend City Council has had several times about police services, and what prompted the council to request a proposal for police services from Snoqualmie last fall.

“It wasn’t just the increase, it was the inability to predict the increase,” Wilson said. “We couldn’t really plan for these costs… and when you’re talking about millions of dollars, a 1 percent increase is significant.”

To address some of the council’s concerns last year, Toner implemented some changes at the North Bend substation. He dropped out of the sheriff's department detective pool, deciding instead to hire detectives only as needed, for a savings of about $78,000 last year. He also limited the scope of calls that deputies could respond to in-person, determining that low-value or week-old crimes could be investigated at a lower level of priority. Last year’s implementation of an online crime reporting tool on the sheriff’s website was also expected to save time and money.

Instead, Toner said “We’re going to investigate all we can… we’ve given the deputies more work to do, so it saves the city money in the end.”

North Bend’s contract with the sheriff specifies that 1.52 patrolmen, which is basically a full-time patrolman plus Toner’s position, will be in the city at all times, with another nearby in the C1 district, or unincorporated areas of North Bend. All records are stored in the King County Courthouse in Seattle, and Toner is an employee of both the city and the sheriff.

In the proposal from Snoqualmie, the department will guarantee one patrolman in the city at all times, and the city has the option of also designating Snoqualmie’s police chief as its own. Although Toner suggested that the county would be able to match or beat the savings offered by Snoqualmie by reducing its level of service, Wilson said the council is emphatic about maintaining one officer in the city around the clock.

The proposal also specifies that six patrolmen, plus a records clerk, will be hired to meet the increased need of serving North Bend, and all administrative functions and record-keeping will be maintained in the Snoqualmie station. Snoqualmie currently has 14 officers on staff, with two patrolling Snoqualmie at all times.

North Bend will be required to pay $384,000, to cover the purchase of three patrol vehicles and other startup costs for the expansion of service. Total startup costs, which are expected to include about a half-year of service, are just over $1 million. After that, the contract price is $1,247,000 with a fixed 3 percent rate increase annually, for each year of the five-year contract.

The cost savings, estimated between $230,000 and $400,000 annually, are significant, Wilson said, but “this is not a cut-and-dried decision.”

Any change would take between one year and 18 months to implement, since the city has a 12-month notice requirement to end its lease on the Boalch Avenue substation, and an 18-month notice requirement to end the county contract.

Council members have invited the public to offer their comments in the decision at the next council meeting, Tuesday, April 17, 7 p.m. at the Mount Si Senior Center.

• Snoqualmie Police Department: http://www.ci.snoqualmie.wa.us/Departments/PoliceDepartment/tabid/87/Default.aspx

• King County Sheriff's Office: http://www.kingcounty.gov/safety/sheriff.aspx

 

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