The public appeared to speak with one voice during last weeks' meeting of the White Salmon City Council.
In a public hearing that featured a "standing room only" crowd, resident after resident offered support for a plan to purchase four new 2010 police cars for the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department.
In the end, however, the council members decided they needed more time to consider the ramifications of the proposal. The decision on whether to purchase four new police cars was tabled in a unanimous vote, putting off a decision on the issue until at least the council's Jan. 20 meeting.
Police Chief Bruce Brending has recommended that the city buy four new vehicles in a lease-to-purchase plan. The city would spread out paying for the cars over a five-year period, with the 2010 prices locked in. The cost to the city budget would not exceed $27,000 per year for five years, with all the cars being delivered immediately.
Police Officer Jim Andring pointed out that the Police Department's fleet of cars is deteriorating rapidly.
"I normally don't look at budget issues," Andring said. "At first I thought this was a lot to take on, but repairs to the old vehicles are starting to cost us an arm and a leg."
The city's mechanic, Jeff Cooper, said the four oldest police cars need almost constant attention to keep them running.
"We've been duct-taping for awhile," Cooper explained. "My work on cop cars has doubled in the last two months."
City Treasurer Lori Kreps said she had tracked the amount of time the city has been forced to spend on car repairs.
"In the last six months, he (Cooper) has put 167 hours into repairs on the police vehicles. In the last two months, he's spent 75 hours on them -- so it's trending up," Kreps said.
Kreps added that those hours translated into $5,368 the city had spent repairing police cars.
White Salmon resident Richard Lyons made a brief presentation in support of the planned purchase of four new cars.
"New vehicles are much more cost-effective," Lyons said. "Maintenance costs are 250 percent higher for cars with 80,000-100,000 miles on them. Fuel costs would come down, and maintenance costs would be way down."
Lyons noted that the oldest police cars in the fleet have about 100,000 miles or more on them. Because police service adds extra wear and tear on a car, Lyons noted that figure was equivalent to 200,000 miles on the average motorist's car.
"As a citizen, I'm forced to wonder if we would trust our families to a car with 200,000 miles on it," Lyons questioned.
Council member Leana Johnson pointed out that the city already has $27,000 in its budget for a new police car in 2010, but if the deal for four cars were to be approved, it would mean the city would be obligated to pay that much every year for five years.
"We already have $27,000 to use however we choose," Johnson said. "We can purchase a car outright or get into a lease agreement. We have four cars recommended for removal because they are on their last legs."
"If we get rid of those four, will the repair budget go back down?" asked council member Mark Peppel.
"Yes," Cooper responded. "The warranty on the new cars will be the standard three years, 36,000 miles. My recommendation is you buy four new cars."
Officers Tony Warren, Josh Gines, and Steve Shields all provided examples of recent instances in which their cars had failed while on duty.
"Those types of things take us out of service, and we have to pay overtime to cover it," said Shields.
"Our maintenance staff can't keep up with the breakdowns, and it's getting worse," Lyons said. "Imagine if someone was really in trouble and the police could not respond because a car would not start. Prompt response times to calls is something citizens expect in an emergency."
White Salmon's Clyde Knowles drew a laugh when he said the city had already missed out on getting the best deal for new cars.
"We should have gotten in on President Obama's program to get rid of our clunkers with `Cash for Clunkers,'" he explained. "We missed the boat on that."
Knowles added that he too supported the purchase of the new police cars.
"I'm saying we need the cars," Knowles said. "With prices going up, maybe we'd better buy a dozen."
Suzie Wiley said it was embarrassing that the city's police officers had to come to the council to lobby for proper equipment.
"These guys deserve the equipment to do the job. It's pathetic the police have to beg for new cars," Wiley said.
Two local business leaders also expressed backing for the new cars.
"Safety should be the first thing," said Paul Beneventi, owner of Beneventi's Pizza in Bingen. "It doesn't look good for the cities to have police cars with their hoods up."
Paul Doty, manager of Hi-School Pharmacy in White Salmon, also supported the purchase.
"Crime is on the rise. We need to support our officers and give them the tools they need to do the job they need to do," Doty said.
However, several council members expressed skepticism.
"If we sign up for this, we have to pay for it for five years," said Peppel. "We don't even know if Insitu will be here. How are we going to make the payment next year?"
"Whether Insitu is here or not, my family deserves a safe place to live," responded Lyons.
Council member Richard Marx said the Police Department has more vehicles than it needs based on how many police officers are on duty at any given time.
"If you have three officers on duty at the most, you have four extra vehicles," Marx said. "I understand we have a problem here, but the council needs to set some policies and have some rules in place before we go buying new cars."
Council member Bob Landgren also expressed concern about the proposal.
"Why I'm concerned is, we have seven vehicles running now, and five have less than 60,000 miles on them," Landgren said. "If we get four more vehicles, that's 11, and we'll have five or six vehicles sitting on the street. Why is that necessary?"
Officer Ben Harvey responded that several of the cars are not reliable.
"The reality is, there are only two cars I trust," Harvey said. "The others could leave you stranded at any time."
Peppel said he wasn't sure getting the cars would solve the problem over the long run.
"Say we agree to buy four cars today. Four years from now, we'll be sitting here doing the same thing," Peppel said.
Given that the city's police cars are worth only scrap value when they are retired, White Salmon resident and budget committee member Shirley Cox said the council needed to wake up.
"If you don't do something, this is really scary," Cox said. "To run our vehicles to the point they are only worth salvage is an absolute disgrace."
Citing the need to obtain more details about the Police Department's existing fleet and more information on possible options, council member Landgren made a motion to table action on the lease-purchase agreement until the Jan. 20 meeting.
"I want to make the best decision for the citizens of White Salmon," Landgren explained.
The motion was approved 5-0.
After the meeting, Police Chief Brending said he hoped the show of public support would help sway the council members into support for the lease-to-purchase plan.
"I am hopeful the council will make the right decision after reviewing the information and listening to the well-attended council meeting," Brending said. "Any delay has the potential of increasing costs due to rising inflation and equipment costs."
Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes, who supports the purchase of the four cars, expressed disappointment the council tabled the measure.
"The public stood behind the plan to buy the new cars and I was happy to see that. I was surprised to see it was tabled," Barnes said. "We'll have to wait and see what the council does."