The city of Bingen is worried that the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department may soon no longer be able to provide 24-hour, seven day a week coverage to the community.
The concern comes from the city of White Salmon's ongoing budget shortfalls, compounded by the ramifications of a possible financial settlement to resolve a lawsuit from former Police Chief Rich Cortese.
The Enterprise has learned that fallout from resolution of the Cortese lawsuit could lead to personnel cuts in the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department.
During last week's meeting of the Bingen City Council, council member Betty Barnes -- who serves on Bingen's police committee -- warned that the joint Police Department is "having very difficult financial times."
"We learned it's much worse than what we thought," Barnes explained. "We knew we had funds for only seven officers instead of eight, but now, depending on how the lawsuit goes, we may not even have a sixth officer. That becomes a problem for Bingen."
At full strength, the Police Department comprises eight patrol officers and a police chief. Currently, the department has five officers and a chief, with the department scheduled to hire another officer soon. The newest officer is set to start at the Police Academy on March 23, and the hiring of a seventh officer is tentatively planned for May.
Bingen contracts with the city of White Salmon for its law enforcement services.
Anthony Connors, attorney for the city of Bingen, said there was uncertainty about the potential impacts of a settlement in the Cortese case, which stems from Cortese's termination as chief of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department in April 2006. Cortese subsequently sued the city in a wrongful termination case.
"It's fair to speculate on the pending litigation with Cortese," Connors said at the March 4 City Council meeting. "There are still negotiations with that, and we don't know what the outcome will be. We don't really know if the sixth officer will go away or not. We need more information before we assume this is a disaster scenario, but it's fair to ask White Salmon if they will make cuts across the board, or just on the back of the Police Department."
Police Chief Bruce Brending, who attended the meeting, said the Police Department budget could not sustain further cuts without seriously diminishing the department's services.
"My feeling is, the Police Department has borne the brunt of the current expense shortages, and I urged the mayor not to look further at the Police Department for cuts," Brending explained.
On March 3, Brending sent a letter to White Salmon Mayor David Poucher regarding the possibility of further cuts to the police force.
"The Police Department's staff level has been reduced from nine to six. This is one-third of the police force. You cannot expect the department to deliver services to the public at the same level with this type of staff reduction if it is permanent," Brending wrote.
Brending added that the Police Department had seen a major reduction in its budget for 2008.
"The budget was already reduced from the original request of $784,712 to $652,158," Brending wrote. "This amounts to approximately a 17 percent cut from the proposed police budget for 2008."
In late February, in another development that appears to be related to the Cortese lawsuit, Mayor Poucher asked Chief Brending to determine what services might have to be cut if another $50,000 were to be eliminated from the police budget.
Brending responded that would mean the sixth police officer position would have to be eliminated.
"These cost-savings measures negatively impact the community and have implications for officer safety as well," Brending explained. "There is no safe way to reduce up to another $50,000 in cuts to the Police Department, either for the communities or for the police officers themselves."
In his letter of March 3, Brending listed the following service cutbacks the Police Department expects to make -- even without an additional $50,000 taken from its budget:
There may be periodic times when coverage will be reduced to two officers covering a 24-hour period. This would mean that officers will be on call for two hours prior to their shift, with no police coverage during the on call time;
Officers will not respond to requests for outside agency assists unless there are two officers on duty or unless physical harm is likely;
When on call, officers will be called out only for crimes in progress involving danger to life and property;
Officers will respond only to injury or blocking accidents. Hit and runs, non-blocking, and non-injury accidents will not be responded to;
Parking enforcement, pedestrian safety, and routine speed emphasis will be reduced or eliminated.
"Your letter is very professional and firm," said council member Laura Mann. "I very much appreciate what you wrote."
Barnes said Bingen's police committee has discussed ways to deal with possible reductions in the number of officers. One idea is to find out what it would cost for the city of Bingen to hire a full-time police officer who would be attached to the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department, but assigned specifically to patrol Bingen.
However, Barnes acknowledged that even with that move, the city would still not have the desired "24-7" coverage.
"We need to look at other options, and may need to look at having our own police force again," Barnes said.
Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel said he was hopeful the worst-case scenario does not play out.
"This has been the best police coverage since I've been mayor," said Prigel, who has served as mayor for about nine years. "I'm hoping this does not play out as it could, and hope White Salmon still recognizes the need for 24-7 coverage. That was one of the reasons they went to this contract. None of the options are good, but we have to look at the options."
Connors pointed out, however, that the city of White Salmon has to honor its contract with Bingen and provide adequate law enforcement coverage.
"To the extent we have a contract, it's enforceable -- and we need to ensure White Salmon honors the contract. I'm not saying they aren't going to, but it's fair to ask White Salmon for more information," Connors said.
Mayor Poucher said he believed the dire predictions of service cuts were premature.
"I think that's a doom and gloom outlook," Poucher said. "We're not sure what's going to happen. I told Mayor Prigel we were in negotiations over outstanding lawsuits, and we could have some financial liability. In the worst case scenario, we're out a lot of money -- and we don't have a money tree to pick it from."
Poucher said he didn't want to see the Police Department hire a new officer if the city would then have to ax the position due to a lack of funds.
"There is nothing worse than hiring an officer, then have a major money crunch and have to let those people go. We want to be honest with them," he said. "We'll know more by the first council meeting in April."
Poucher said he expects that the city will be able to hire the sixth officer, but may have to hold off on plans to hire the planned seventh officer in May.
Poucher also questioned whether 24-7 coverage was absolutely essential.
"Could we have maybe four hours of the day with no coverage? Remember, we still have the county on duty and have the state on duty, and people on call for emergencies," he said. "Do we really need someone on at 2 a.m. in the wintertime?"
The current contract for joint law enforcement services between the two cities expires in 2009.