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North Bend makes its move | Council approves police contract change in 4-3 vote
Lower costs, quick responses, and responses to every call were the main reasons that four North Bend City Council members voted Tuesday night to explore a contract with Snoqualmie for police services.
Improved readiness, community feedback, and lack of representation in a Snoqualmie contract were the main reasons that three councilmen voted against the action.
Despite their fundamental disagreement, however, both sides shared the opinion that North Bend could no longer make do with a flex model for law enforcement, at any price.
"Public service, public safety is a primary mission for city government…" said Jeanne Pettersen, who voted for the change with Dee Williamson, Ross Loudenback and Jonathan Rosen.
"For me, that requires an officer within the city limits, with adequate supervision and backup. In other words, not a flex model, but a dedicated model," she said.
To illustrate her point, Pettersen referred to a March 30 incident involving an intoxicated man creating a disturbance in several areas before he eventually broke into a Si View home and was shot to death by the resident. Neither North Bend deputy was available to respond to the calls made before the break-in.
"It's possible that if we had had a dedicated officer… that there would have been an intervention somewhere along the way," she said.
In the minority opposition were Ryan Kolodejchuk, Alan Gothelf and David Cook.
"I don't think (a Snoqualmie contract) is the right decision," Kolodejchuk said. "I think the right decision is to work with King County on the modified-dedicated" model— a year-old proposal that offered two deputies patrolling the city and slightly different pricing.
"I think it's time we had broader services," he added.
What those broader services might look like with Snoqualmie will be decided in the next few weeks, as city officials negotiate the final five-year contract and interlocal agreement. Several council members, along with Snoqualmie Police Chief Steve McCulley, hope it will include a second officer to patrol North Bend.
"This is an opportunity for us to upgrade our service, our level of service," said Jonathan Rosen, adding that the city's growth makes that necessary. he felt that since the Snoqualmie contract was less expensive than the city's current flex model, the city should use those savings to hire another officer.
"Not only is it dedicated, it's more officers, and the impact to the budget would be zero," he said.
McCulley said on Wednesday, "I was very encouraged to hear that the majority of the council aren't seeing this as a cost-savings, but an opportunity to improve their service…. because one person a day is not enough for North Bend. It's not the small city it used to be."
Currently, North Bend has one deputy in the city and one outside city limits, and the two offer mutual backup. Snoqualmie's original proposal was for one officer in the city, McCulley said, because that matched the current King County contract, but North Bend frequently benefitted from having the "Charlie 1" deputy for unincorporated King County nearby.
With a single officer in North Bend under the new contract, "they would be receiving the same support from the city of Snoqualmie but that could be a resource drain on our city," McCulley said.
Adding an officer to the Snoqualmie contract would require Snoqualmie to hire eight new recruits, rather than six, McCulley said, but the 18-month notice period required to cancel the King County contract would give his department adequate time to hire the officers in shifts of three at a time.
To Mark Toner, Chief of North Bend Police Services now, the second-officer proposal sounded frustratingly like one of the sheriff's office proposals.
"Our modified dedicated is giving them an extra officer," he said, with some limitations. "It's what I asked for last year. The city actually turned us down."
City partnershipRosen saw potential improvements in a Snoqualmie contract beyond quality of service.
"Maybe this is an opportunity to strengthen the bonds between our cities," he said.
Kolodejchuk and Cook, however, commented that they disagreed with various actions by the city of Snoqualmie, and both felt strongly that King County was far better trained and prepared for the several major incidents North Bend has gone through this year.
"I believe a police department is only as good as the tools you can give it," said Kolodejchuk.
Further, Cook felt the city needed some type of representation within the Snoqualmie Police Department under the contract.
He noted that police services are a large chunk of the budget -- 31 percent of the general fund, according to City Administrator Londi Lindell -- and said "Once we do this, if we do this, we will have no say or recourse in how our police services are managed," but for the money, about $1.2 million in 2014 when the contract takes effect, "I would think we would have a larger seat at the table for managing police services."
Rosen said that criticizing another city's elected officials was inappropriate in this discussion, and added that North Bend's elected officials, himself included, had made their share of mistakes.
"I think one of the mistakes this council made was to eliminate responding to all 911 calls. I was against it then, I'm against it now," he said.
Williamson and Gothelf both noted that that decision was made by the council, not the sheriff, and Gothelf also stressed that the sheriff's contract cost increases that other councilmen referred to were prompted by the city's major annexation of Tanner in 2009.
Responding to every call turned out to be extremely important to the 120 citizens contacted in a random telephone survey in July, however. Even more important was a response time of less than five minutes, which ranked highest at 92 percent importance. The survey results were ultimately what made Dee Williamson vote with Pettersen, Rosen, and Ross Loudenback in support of the contract.
"I didn't know when I walked into the room tonight which way I was going to vote," Williamson said. He added that he had requested the phone survey because "I wanted to see if I could find the pulse of the city."
Concerned about charges of bias in the phone survey questions, Williamson said he "threw out" every question that could have a bias and looked instead at the citizen priorities, and that's what made his decision.
Snoqualmie had a slight edge over the sheriff's contract, Williamson said, on response times and on other citizen priorities like having a supervisor available at all times (sergeants are on duty for all but two to four hours each day) and, despite Chief Deputy Dave Jutilla's assurances that the 2013 contract should increase by 2 percent or less, stable and predictable costs and keeping expenses down.
The phone survey results had the opposite effect on Gothelf's vote. Responses to a survey question about changing to Snoqualmie for cost savings of $300,000 annually ran 65 percent in favor.
"I'm kind of suspect of the survey question and how it was presented," Gothelf said Tuesday. "I'm having a hard time reconciling it with the letters and the comments that I've gotten from my neighbors. Overwhelmingly, people asked me to keep King County."
After the vote Williamson said the feedback he'd received had been about 50-50 on staying with the county or switching to Snoqualmie.
Response time is really what settled the question for him. "I do think the response times will be better, because of the locale," Williamson said. "It's a much smaller area."
The council is expected to receive the final contract in September. After both cities approve it, North Bend will notify King County of its intent to cancel the sheriff's contract, which will take effect 18 months later.
The decision disappointed Toner, he admitted.
"It's our first contract, there's probably a little pride in that," he said, but it won't affect his or his deputies' work. "It's not the council that we're out here to serve."
Wednesday morning at the substation, he said, he heard the deputies saying "We can't let anything else suffer out here… we still want to deliver to the people."