By JESSE BURKHARDT
During last week's special joint meeting of the Bingen City Council and the White Salmon City Council, White Salmon's council members announced that the city is facing a major budget shortfall -- and asked for Bingen's help to overcome it.
One way to alleviate a looming fiscal crisis, they suggested during the special Aug. 3 session, would be to require Bingen to pay more for the full-time law enforcement services it receives through an inter-local contract with the city of White Salmon. Either that, White Salmon council members said, or have police services slashed.
The joint police contract has been in effect since 2000. In 2008, the city councils of both cities voted to extend the deal until 2014.
However, during the meeting, White Salmon's councilors openly expressed doubts about whether the city of White Salmon wants to continue to pay for a full-time Police Department.
"We don't have the revenue to cover what's required. We have a problem and we need your help," explained White Salmon council member Bob Landgren.
"White Salmon expects to face a budget shortfall by the end of the year of $200,000," added White Salmon City Council member Anthony Coulter. "The Police Department is about half of the city budget, and we'd like to see $100,000 cut from the police budget."
Coulter asked if Bingen might be open to decreasing the hours of police coverage to reduce the costs of police services.
Addressing Bingen's council members, White Salmon's Mark Peppel asked if having around the clock police coverage for the community was truly necessary.
"Our 24/7 coverage is one issue we need to address," Peppel said. "Do we need it?"
Peppel said he believed there was no need for 24/7 coverage because the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office and Washington State Patrol were also patrolling in the county.
"We have triple coverage at numerous hours of the day," Peppel said.
"Are you recommending we do away with 24/7 coverage?" asked Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes.
"I don't personally think we need 24/7 coverage," Peppel responded.
Double coverage -- when there are two police officers on duty locally at the same time -- also came under scrutiny.
"We need to look at ways to reduce costs," explained Landgren. "We can do away with double coverage, and we do have county officers available. We need to come up with solutions."
The current contract, which is based on the assessed property valuations of the two cities for 2010, has Bingen paying 23.7 percent of the total cost for law enforcement services in the two cities.
"I'll just say it," said Peppel. "We'd like to see Bingen pay 50 percent for coverage. Most of the calls are in Bingen anyway."
Asked how he arrived at the conclusion that most calls are in Bingen, Peppel said he couldn't prove it with statistics.
"I don't have a lot of facts," Peppel said. "I've just talked to a lot of people in our area."
Responding to Peppel's assertion, Police Chief Bruce Brending said a review of monthly statistics on all the calls police officers responded to over several years showed that Bingen logs between 30-35 percent of all calls for police assistance.
"If Bingen wants double coverage, maybe Bingen can pay for it," added Landgren.
At that point, Bingen's city attorney, Anthony Connors, pointed out that the two cities have a valid contract that spells out the level of law enforcement coverage Bingen will receive, and White Salmon is legally bound to honor it.
"There is a contract, and you renewed that contract in 2008," Connors said. "I'm hearing that this is a White Salmon financial problem and you want Bingen to fix it without giving up anything to get that help."
Connors pointed out that White Salmon has virtually all the control over the Police Department, including hiring and firing of officers and the police chief.
"You were very insistent on that when you started the contract," Connors noted.
Barnes also questioned the projected shortfall White Salmon was facing.
"When did you go from $100,000 to $200,000?" Barnes questioned.
White Salmon Clerk/Treasurer Lori Kreps pointed out that the $200,000 figure was only a projection.
"Right now, it's a $70,000 shortfall. If everyone stays within their budgets, we'll be at about $100,000 by the end of the year," Kreps explained.
Barnes added that she did not appreciate the tone coming from White Salmon's council members, and warned them about the legal ramifications of breaking the contract between the two cities.
"One thing I'm picking up is, if we don't agree to what you're asking us to do, you'll just do what you have to do [and cut services]," Barnes said. "This is a contract, and it can be enforced. If you think you're broke now, think about what you'll be when we're done."
But Peppel said that, given the financial realities White Salmon is facing, he saw only three possibilities.
"You give us more money, we contract with the county, or we cut the police budget," Peppel said. "Right now, we're in trouble."
Bingen City Council member Clinton Bryan asked what White Salmon's plan was to fund police operations in the future.
"Normally, to get help with a short-term problem, you have to have a long-term plan in place. Do you have any plan to go after future revenue?" Bryan asked.
Bingen council member Catherine Kiewit asked White Salmon's councilors if they could provide some measurable benchmarks or goals to alleviate the crisis.
"What is the White Salmon City Council's vision of what the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department will look like in the next five years?" she asked.
None of the three White Salmon council members present responded directly to Kiewit's question.
Mayor Barnes pointed out that the agreement between the cities specifies that the Police Department should have seven officers and a police chief, a staffing level White Salmon has not been providing. Currently, the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department includes six officers and a chief.
"I don't see why we have to have a specific number," Peppel responded. "To have a cap or a minimum doesn't make sense."
"If we have no number, what if you decided we're only going to have three officers?" Barnes questioned.
"If it works, that's OK with me," answered Peppel.
"That's what we're afraid of," Barnes said.
Peppel said a few months ago he had discussed contracting for police coverage with the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office, and he thought that concept should be looked at.
"I brought it up before to get a quote. Not to fire the Police Department like some believe, but just to see what the budget numbers are," Peppel explained.
At the end of the joint meeting, several citizens offered comments about the police issue.
Jaci Dietsch, who has served on the city's budget committee, noted that a survey of White Salmon residents showed that citizens placed the Fire Department and Police Department at the top of their priority list.
"People want the Police Department and Fire Department funded. You as council members need to address that number one. Cutting hours or officers will not work for our community," Dietsch said.
An off-duty member of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department, Sgt. Jim Andring, said it would not work to have county or state officers serve as primary backup for operations in Bingen and White Salmon.
"I've heard several times how the Washington State Patrol and Klickitat County units are available to answer our calls. I'm telling you they are not," Andring said. "Our closest backup might be 100 miles away. When you're rolling around on the ground with someone threatening to kill you, that is a long damn time to wait, excuse my language. When we need backup, we need it now. How many citizens would love to wait an hour for the Washington State Patrol -- or would you rather have me there in three or four minutes?"
Former Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel, who worked to forge the original contract agreement that merged the Bingen and White Salmon police forces, said the existing deal was working very well and he urged the council members not to gut it.
"Our goal in putting together this agreement was to have 24/7 coverage at a professional level, and we succeeded at that," Prigel said. "Now we have the most professional police department in 25 years. I understand you're in dire straits, but look long-term."
After the session, Mayor Barnes said hearing from White Salmon's council members was valuable.
"It's important to get a better clue as to what they are asking for," Barnes said. "A request has been made of Bingen, and the council will have to reflect on what they heard and what they would like to do. This is quite a big thing they're asking of us."