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Police Dog On Suspension Due To Funding Issues

Next council meeting March 2

By JESSE BURKHARDT

The Enterprise

With the city's budget situation up in the air, the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department's police dog is now cooling his paws at home.

Tony Domish, the city's interim public safety director explained that the K9 program is on hold.

"It's a funding decision the council is mulling over," said Domish, who is also handling the duties of the police chief while the search for a new chief continues. "Until somebody makes a decision, the dog will not be on patrol."

Last October, the White Salmon City Council voted 4-1 to eliminate funding for the Police Department's K9 program. The budget move was effective as of January 2011.

The police dog, named "Justice," is a German shepherd. Following extensive training, the dog has been certified to detect marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin, and has logged about 800 hours in patrol time and narcotics training.

Since the council's October vote, supporters in the community have volunteered to provide private funding to keep the police dog in service. However, how to set up a private funding program that meets the city's technical/legal requirements remains in question.

Further, the original estimates of the annual cost of the K9 program were sharply underestimated.

According to Domish, the updated projected costs for the K9 program -- including labor costs, mileage, and training -- works out to be nearly $18,000 per year.

"And I would suggest having a little more than that for contingencies," Domish added.

One of the new wrinkles Domish presented to the City Council is that the city is legally obligated to pay a stipend to the dog's handler -- Bingen-White Salmon Police Officer Ben Harvey -- for the time he spends taking care of the dog every day.

The payments, which the city was unaware of until recently, are retroactive to when the city began the K9 program in September 2009.

"The handler is taking care of the dog while at home for 30 minutes per day, seven days a week," Domish explained. "With my math, the total owed to date is $9,694.37. Nobody knew about having to pay for the at-home care of the dog."

The city's attorney, Ken Woodrich, said the payments were considered routine.

"It's consistent with the Fair Labor Standards Act," Woodrich said. "If it's a job requirement, it doesn't matter if the person is at home. If it fills a requirement, you're to be compensated for it. Going forward, there is no way around this."

White Salmon City Administrator Pat Munyan concurred with Woodrich's analysis.

"It's a fee he (Officer Ben Harvey) is entitled to by the Fair Labor Standards Act," Munyan said. "We are required to pay that money."

The K9 program was launched in late 2009 after the Police Department received a $10,000 grant from Washington's Community Training & Education Department to create a police dog unit. At that point, a private family donated an additional $7,500.

City Council member Anthony Coulter, a supporter of the K9 program, asked Domish what the city's options were.

"How can we get funds for the program?" Coulter asked.

"Through grants and through private funding sources," Domish said, pointing out that the city has already received some pledges by private citizens to pay for the dog's services.

Domish recommended that the K9 program be maintained if at all possible.

"It is my belief that a properly run K9 program will not only benefit the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department but also neighboring law enforcement agencies," Domish wrote in a report to the mayor and the council. "In a time of financial hardship, we must learn to work together and share resources to effectively police our communities ... I understand the council's decision to not fund the dog, as they are being fiscally responsible. I would like the opportunity to demonstrate that this program has the potential to be successful without public funding if given the chance."

Munyan added that White Salmon Mayor David Poucher, who was out of town and could not attend the Feb. 16 meeting, wanted to address the council about the K9 program before a final decision is made.

Reached by telephone on Friday, Poucher explained that all he was asking for was a fair chance to make the K9 program work.

"If we can fund it privately -- if the people and voters and citizens want to have the dog -- give us the opportunity to raise the money," Poucher said. "The EDA (Klickitat County Economic Development Authority) has tentatively said they thought it was a good program, and voted unanimously to give us $5,000 toward the police dog program. That's a good start."

Poucher added that he was willing to put a finite timeline on the proposition.

"Give me until June 1st. If we can't raise the funds, we'll have to do away with the program and I'll cancel it," he said.

Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes, whose city contracts with White Salmon for law enforcement services, said she believed Poucher's appeal was a balanced one.

"Let's see if the K9 program can sustain itself, instead of eliminating something we've invested so much in," Barnes said.

White Salmon City council member Bob Landgren, who has not supported the K9 program, said there was more to the story then most citizens realized.

"It's not an easy issue, even though it might sound like it is," Landgren said. "But we'll see what happens."

Landgren said he wanted to wait to hear more from the public.

"I'd like to see how the public responds to it," Landgren said. "As a councilman, I listen to the public."

Council member Mark Peppel said he was grateful for Domish's comprehensive report on the K9 costs, and his efforts on behalf of the Police Department.

"I want to thank Tony for what he has done," Peppel said. "He's done more in the last two months than we've seen in the last few years. It's good to see the community involvement, with Cub Scouts and at the schools. We haven't had that in a long time. It's really good to see that."

The next council meeting, held in the council chambers of the White Salmon Fire Hall, is set for March 2 at 6 p.m.

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