The city of Bingen says it is willing to pay more to the city of White Salmon to help fund the two cities' joint police force -- but with a three-pronged catch.
In an edgy meeting of the Bingen City Council on Sept. 7, council members discussed possible alterations to the interlocal agreement for law enforcement services between Bingen and White Salmon -- and expressed their frustration with the White Salmon City Council.
Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes pointed out that White Salmon is not in compliance with a contract, originally signed in 2000 and renewed by both cities in 2008, that provides for the two cities to share costs for the combined Bingen-White Salmon Police Department.
Barnes added that she would not stand by and watch the contract -- and the Police Department -- be degraded.
"The position I've taken is that the contract calls for 24/7 police coverage, and that's what we want to see," Barnes said. "That's the stance we need to take."
At the beginning of the meeting, Barnes read aloud an Aug. 30 letter from White Salmon Mayor David Poucher. In the letter, Poucher asked that Bingen boost the amount it contributes to the joint Police Department to 33 percent.
Currently, Bingen pays 23.4 percent of the costs for law enforcement services, using a formula based on the property valuations of the two cities.
"Our council is concerned with the current split based solely on valuation," Poucher wrote in his Aug. 30 letter. "I would like to suggest we use a three-year average of calls for service as a more meaningful way to determine cost share. My calculations show this would be a 33 percent share for Bingen. I think this should be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2010, but realize that may not be doable and I think a July 1, 2010, date is appropriate. Thank you for your help and for being a good neighbor."
Even Mayor Barnes acknowledged that basing payments on property valuations was not practical.
"The formula we're using now is not fair," Barnes conceded.
Bingen City Administrator Jan Brending explained some of the history behind the original agreement for police coverage between the two cities.
"We felt the assessed valuations were the way to go," Brending said. "Assessed valuations are a good tool. But there really is a base level Bingen should not go below. I'm not sure what that level should be."
However, while generally agreeing that Bingen should be paying at a higher level, Barnes said White Salmon is expecting too much.
Bingen council member Catherine Kiewit said basing Bingen's financial contributions to the police force on the number of calls from Bingen was not a sensible way to determine costs.
"I don't like the idea of basing it on the number of calls for service," Kiewit explained. "The calls are not described, and the reports don't mention how much time was spent. We generally, as a group, agree we should pay more, but any change we make should be temporary."
Kiewit added that the actions of the White Salmon City Council regarding how it has handled the Police Department have not inspired confidence.
"Part of the frustration I have is, I don't feel confident in what White Salmon will do in the future," Kiewit said. "It's wrong to have a contract that's not being fulfilled, with them not fulfilling their end of the bargain."
Police Sgt. Jim Andring said the call logs of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department show that the number of calls to Bingen are very consistent.
"Month after month, it's 32-34 percent of the calls," Andring said. "But there is no way of telling how many hours are spent on a particular case."
Barnes pointed out to the council that she believed the city of Bingen had only two options regarding the agreement for joint police services with White Salmon.
"One, we can say, `No, we're not paying a penny more. Honor the agreement or we're going to sue you,' or two, we can go to them with these demands," Barnes said. "Otherwise, we're staying in the middle, and police services will never get any better."
Barnes said it was important to make a move rather than see the Police Department collapse.
"I suggest we pick a magical number and we have some demands that go along with that," Barnes explained. "Before we pay any additional money, we want to see White Salmon immediately start the hiring process for a new officer and immediately start the process of hiring a police chief. If they want more money, we have the right to ask for new conditions. We're at a critical stage right now with only four officers."
"Are we out of line requiring six officers?" asked Kiewit.
"We're not out of line at all," responded Barnes. "The current interlocal agreement calls for eight officers, including a chief."
However, Brending pointed out that expecting White Salmon to pay for a fully-staffed police force was unrealistic in the current budget environment.
"I'll be honest with you," said Brending. "From what I know about White Salmon, they can't afford a seventh officer. Their general fund is broke. They will be hard-pressed to fund six. But we can't allow the Police Department to deteriorate down to nothing. You can't run a department on four officers."
In the end, the council came to a consensus that it would offer to pay White Salmon 32 percent of the costs for police services.
"We'll offer 32 percent for the last four months of 2010 and for all of 2011 -- if White Salmon agrees to request a hiring list for a chief and an officer, and hire within 30 days of getting the list," said Barnes.
The council voted 5-0 to OK that approach.
The next day, a response letter was sent from Mayor Barnes to Mayor Poucher.
The letter, dated Sept. 8, laid out the three conditions Bingen wanted White Salmon to meet before Bingen would increase its payments for police services.
"The council decided that it was willing to pay 32 percent of the cost of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department, commencing Sept. 1, 2010, and through 2011," wrote Barnes, "on the following conditions:
1) White Salmon's mayor will immediately request from the Civil Service Commission a list for an officer, and an officer will be hired within 30 days after receiving the list;
2) White Salmon's mayor will immediately request from the Civil Service Commission a list for the police chief, and a chief will be hired within 30 days after receiving the list; and
3) The mayors of Bingen and White Salmon will have equal responsibility in decisions regarding hiring and retaining Police Department staff, particularly discretionary staff, and Bingen's mayor shall have supervisory authority over the activities of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department in Bingen. Similarly, the respective mayors together, with the assistance each chooses, will build, review, and approve the budget for the Police Department before the budget is presented to either city council."
The White Salmon City Council was set to discuss Bingen's proposal at its Sept. 15 meeting.