The city of White Salmon has been facing some sharp questions lately from Bingen City Council members who want to know why the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department has not been kept up to full strength -- which would be seven officers and a chief.
Currently, the police force comprises six officers and a chief.
At the Nov. 17 meeting of the Bingen City Council, White Salmon Mayor David Poucher and two members of the White Salmon City Council attended to explain the police staffing issue.
Poucher pointed out that although the city considered hiring a seventh officer in 2010, budget constraints altered that plan.
"Part of the reason that position was removed from the budget was because, how would we fund the position in 2011?" Poucher explained. "That worst scenario would be to hire someone, then have to let him go."
However, Bingen's councilors pointed out that the agreement in which Bingen contracts with White Salmon for police coverage calls for a larger police force.
"The interlocal agreement says we are to have a total of eight," said Bingen council member Betty Barnes. "White Salmon has chosen to keep the swimming pool open, but eliminated the hiring of a seventh officer to do that."
White Salmon City Council member Bob Landgren responded that even though funding for the swimming pool was kept in the city's 2010 budget, severe cuts were made elsewhere.
"The pool is funded, but our parks are closed," Landgren said.
Poucher defended White Salmon's budget decisions.
"We're saying we don't have enough in our general fund to allow hiring a seventh officer," Poucher said. "When our fund comes back, we're going to hire the next officer. We have to have a basis to hire an officer. We want to make sure there's money to do it. We want to make sure we keep him more than six months."
Poucher added that White Salmon wanted more officers as much as Bingen, but financial realities prevented further hiring for now.
"We're not saying no. We just can't afford it right now," Poucher said. "Our street funds have been cut in half for 2010, and we're not opening our parks. I'm not even sure we will be able to run our snowplow."
Police Chief Bruce Brending, who attended the meeting, told the council members he was trying to be patient.
"I'd be less than honest if I said I was completely happy with where White Salmon finds itself," Brending said. "I'm a strong advocate for the seventh officer. And the interlocal agreement between the two cities adds weight that this should be a priority for budget purposes."
Brending noted, however, that the Police Department is in relatively strong shape overall.
"The department has made great strides at being stable. We added the K-9 position, and have been given most of the equipment we've asked for," Brending said. "A seventh position would provide additional coverage. I'm not happy about the decision not to hire, but I would not want to hire a seventh officer if we were not sure we could keep that position."
Bingen council member Catherine Kiewit asked if White Salmon's failure to provide the required amount of law enforcement coverage could trigger legal repercussions.
Barnes, who will become Bingen's mayor on Jan. 1, 2010, said that could be the case, but, deficient or not, the alternatives to contracting with White Salmon were not attractive.
"Our options are to start our own Police Department again, or go through the Sheriff's Office. Either way, it would cost us a lot more," Barnes said.
Brending added that the Bingen police force had suffered a very high turnover rate.
"There was a huge history of problems with the Bingen Police Department. Since they've been combined with White Salmon, Bingen gets 24-7 coverage and has an excellent, stabilized force and quality personnel," Brending said. "We are in a tough situation, but Bingen has a Police Department you can be proud of."