The White Salmon City Council voted to say goodbye to "Justice" in a special meeting on Oct. 27.
With a 4-1 vote, the council eliminated funds for the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department's K9 police dog from the 2011 budget. Before the vote, council members said the city could not afford to budget for the dog, named "Justice" by a vote of local residents.
Controversy about the decision to ax the dog started at the beginning of the meeting. Council member Anthony Coulter questioned why the dog was being discussed.
"What motivated this to be on the agenda?" Coulter questioned.
"It was put on the agenda by a council member," responded Bob Landgren, a council member serving as mayor pro tempore because Mayor David Poucher was out of town.
Coulter asked that the member who put the issue on the agenda identify himself.
"Could that member introduce it?" Coulter requested.
At that point, council member Mark Peppel said the city's Budget Committee and Police Committee had discussed the K9 program for months, and there was consensus that the city could not afford a police dog -- especially since a new police car with special equipment for the dog had been requested.
The police vehicle, if equipped for a dog, would have cost the city about $47,000.
But Coulter disputed Peppel's explanation.
"I don't seem to recall a consensus on this," Coulter said. "All we said at the meeting was that it was not appropriate to buy a car for a dog. The Budget Committee has not met for a month. Before that, there was no consensus that the dog was inappropriate."
"We have the facts that the city is out of money -- that's enough for me," Peppel said.
Police Sgt. Jim Andring, who was present at the special meeting, defended the department's K9 program.
"The dog is a very necessary part of the force for us," Andring said, adding that the dog was not costing the city much money.
According to Andring, the Police Department has spent about $800 on the police dog in direct costs in 2010, and projects about $1,600 in costs for 2011.
However, council member Adrian Bradford said he did not see why White Salmon needed a police dog.
"When I first came to this community, I was asked why a city of this size needed an attack dog. It made no sense to me," Bradford said. "The people of White Salmon never demanded a dog; they never saw a need for it. And the need to spend $47,000 for a car for the dog, this is outrageous to me. We're desperate for funds. To me, this is the most obvious place to cut."
Coulter pointed out that the car was a separate issue from the dog itself.
"The $47,000 for a car was already rejected," Coulter said.
Bingen-White Salmon Police Office Ben Harvey, the handler for Justice, spoke in vigorous defense of the K9 program.
"It's a patrol dog," Harvey said. "I don't think it's fair to the dog to have people make comments like `oh, I don't see why a dog is needed in our poor quiet village.' Crimes do exist. Our search warrants and seizures are up 1,000 percent in the last year."
"For me it's a financial decision," responded council member Richard Marx. "Does the dog make money for the city? Is this town going to crumble if the dog is gone?"
"We don't make money. We're not supposed to make money, just like the Fire Department doesn't make money. But without us, you suffer," said Andring. "We're a drain on the budget, but we provide a service."
"I don't want that drain. We can't have that drain," Marx responded.
Harvey pointed out that the benefits of having a trained police dog could not necessarily be measured in dollars and cents.
"There is no way to estimate the true value of these dogs until a dog saves the life of a police officer, or finds a little girl who's lost, or makes a major drug bust," Harvey said.
However, Bradford said unpleasant cuts needed to be made to keep the city afloat.
"We're here tonight because the city is in desperate financial condition, and we have to prioritize. One thing we're trying to pay for is another police officer. This program is just not up there on a priority level," explained Bradford.
Andring asked the council to trust the police force to make the best choices about what was needed to conduct effective operations.
"The K9 program is the most progressive work the Police Department has done in 25 years -- other than the merging of the Bingen and White Salmon police departments," Andring said. "It's up to the police chief to prioritize what equipment is most important. It seems like `pick on the Police Department night.' That's the way it feels to me."
"It's not personal. It's where can we save the money," Peppel responded.
Coulter called for a joint Police Committee meeting before making a decision on whether to ax the K9 program.
Sandi Dickey, a member of the Bingen City Council who attended the special meeting in White Salmon, also asked the council to hold off on making a final decision.
"It would be fair to Bingen to allow us to be involved in the decision," Dickey explained.
Bradford said he did not think a delay was necessary.
"For me, it's a priority decision. I don't agree with having a joint meeting. This is White Salmon's deficit problem, not a Bingen problem. We have the right to make a decision, and we should make that decision," Bradford explained.
"Adrian's right," Peppel said. "Let's go ahead and get it over with. I make a motion to eliminate the dog from the 2011 budget, effective at the first of the year."
The motion passed 4-1, with council members Peppel, Bradford, Landgren, and Marx voting to end funding for the police dog. Council member Coulter voted against the move.
Although he was not able to attend the meeting, Mayor Poucher expressed strong support for the K9 program before the council's special meeting.
"We need to keep the dog," Poucher explained. "We're fortunate to have the dog. The dog is like half an officer; it's some type of backup and a wonderful asset to have. A dog can be a life-saving event for a police officer."
After the meeting, Andring said he strongly disagreed with the council's move to kill the K9 program.
"There are council members who actually believe this is a peaceful little village where nothing bad ever happens. I would like to be able to say that is true, but it isn't," Andring said. "We provide a monthly report of our activities to the council. They should know bad things do happen here. We have assaults, child abuse, sexual offenses, burglaries, and drug issues. The council does not see those things. They simply have no clue of the potential dangers of being an officer in a small, understaffed, and under-budgeted department."