Westport Mayor Michael Bruce and all five members of the City Council hosted a Town Hall meeting Monday evening, March 3, in the Ocosta High School commons. The meeting was held to allow citizens an opportunity to learn more about the option of contracting with the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office (GHCSO) for policing services, to get answers to questions and to express their preferences as to how the City should proceed.
Mayor Bruce opened the meeting by explaining to the 54 people present – the large majority of them Westport residents — that the major economic downturn since January of 2008 has steadily drained the City of revenues and has forced a number of funding cuts in all areas, including the Police Department.
Sheriff explains options
Grays Harbor County Sheriff Rick Scott then took the floor to explain services that the County can offer the city should Westport choose to contract with his office.
“I’m not here to advocate that you do anything. I’m only here to share information about another option for city policing services,” Scott said in his opening remarks.
“There are many cities in the state that have chosen to contract with their county sheriff’s office, including many large municipalities that can well afford their own departments. Most cities see a substantial savings by eliminating administrative and equipment costs,” he said.
Scott explained that if the City contracts with the sheriff’s office, there would be as many deputies pulling regular duty shifts in Westport for which the city wishes to contract. “The model calls for a core group of officers patrolling just like now, with the only difference being that they would be in sheriff’s office patrol vehicles,” he said.
“When you contract for services, it won’t be a revolving door. The same deputies work the same areas so they come to know people in the community and what the problems are. None of that would change,” said Scott.
According to the sheriff, deputies on duty for the City would remain inside city limits for their entire shifts, with the exception of occasional responses for Mutual Aid elsewhere on the South Beach, as current patrol officers do.
The sheriff noted that in order to have 24-hour coverage, “It would take six deputies, and one part of the contract would be the need for a supervisor to be responsible to the mayor and council, for a total of seven full-time employees.”
In addition to patrolling services, Scott stated that all other services of the sheriff’s office would be available, including SWAT, K-9, animal control, and the detective division for investigative work.
“Another benefit is that it would lower the city’s liability insurance costs for things like car crashes and use of excessive force. The county takes on that responsibility for contract cities,” said Scott.
An audience member asked what the cost would be per year for a deputy’s service as a full-time officer for Westport. Scott responded that total costs for each deputy, including wages, benefits, equipment and training, is approximately $100,000 per year.
Given that the City’s budget for policing services for 2014 is set at just under $900,000, another attendee asked Mayor Bruce what the city would do with the “extra” $200,000 it would save if it contracted for seven deputies.
Bruce again explained that the police department currently isn’t fully funded due to a major loss of revenue coming into the city. “There is no extra $200,000. We don’t have the $900,000 that we’ve budgeted. That’s the problem that we are trying to deal with. We haven’t bought a new patrol car in the last four or five years and we’ve been an officer down for a long time because of a lack of funding,” he said.
“Right now we’re also short one person in the Street Department, we don’t have a planner, there’s no Code Enforcement Officer and the list goes on,” Bruce added.
“We have to make some difficult decisions about how to fund the services our citizens want and expect. With our funding shortfall and both the police chief and lieutenant retiring, it’s like a perfect storm. We need to consider all our options, and this is just one of them. In my position as mayor, I’m the one that gets to be the bearer of bad news. I want your community protected. We’re just doing our due diligence here. We want to hear where you want us to focus,” said Bruce.
Some for, some against
Several citizens stated that they want to keep the Westport Police Department intact regardless of the cost, a couple of them going so far as to suggest that the city cut the size of the police force as necessary to make ends meet.
Others stated that the city needs to add more officers, at whatever cost necessary, most saying that the current force is not dealing effectively with the large and growing problem of drug-related crime in the city.
Councilman Louis Summers said that he wants to see the Police Department stay and said that he would like to see if the citizens of Westport would be willing to pay an add-on one percent tax to support the City Police and Fire Departments.
Still others expressed their approval of the idea of contracting with GHCSO for policing services, including Gilbert Myers.
“You’ll still have a police department here. It will just be staffed by deputies. The big difference you’ll see is the availability of more investigative services,” said Myers. His wife Roberta agreed. “I’m in favor of this because the sheriff’s office is one of the top drug enforcement agencies in the state and there would be so many more other services available also,” she said.
Some still confused
Despite repeated explanations that there would be deputies assigned regular shifts inside city limits should the city contract with the sheriff’s office, several of those who made comments didn’t understand the work plan model, clinging to the notion that contracting with the sheriff’s office would mean no deputies would be assigned to pull patrol shifts inside the city, resulting in lengthy response times, with those in need of assistance waiting for deputies to travel great distances from out of the area.
Sheriff Scott again reiterated that deputies would be assigned regular shifts patrolling Westport in the same way current city police officers do.
Cost spikes concern
Westport property and business owner Erik Petterssen expressed concern about potential major cost spikes for services after the first year of a contract.
Scott stated that all of the policing services contracts that he’s seen are for multiple years with built-in annual cost-for-services adjustments to protect both parties, “and every contract has an escape clause. It’s not something that’s etched in stone,” he said.
According to Mayor Bruce, City Council members will continue to discuss their options regarding either contracting for policing services or starting the search for a new police chief at this coming Monday’s regularly scheduled City Council meeting. The meetings are held in Old City Hall, starting at 7 p.m. The public is invited and encouraged to attend City Council meetings.