Police merger talks resurface

May 14, 2011

Everything old is new again. That might be the banner Hood River city and county representatives could wave when it comes to the latest round of exploratory talks now under way regarding possible consolidated law enforcement services.

"The County of Hood River brought a proposal to the City of Hood River for the provision of law enforcement services under a contractual relationship about five years ago," said City Manager Bob Francis. That time, it was flatly turned down.

According to Francis, the subject has been broached between jurisdictions at least two other times within the last five years.

Most recently, during two goal-setting meetings held separately by the county and the city council early this year, the topic of reorganized law enforcement services was once again brought forth.

"It became apparent, due to attrition and budget cuts, that this might become necessary," said Francis.

Following the goal-setting meetings, Police Chief Bruce Ludwig volunteered to serve on an exploratory task force, if one should be formed.

Francis was then directed to draft a letter to the county administrator, Dave Meriwether, seeking a meeting to review possible options for coordinating law enforcement services.

In response to the city's letter, a 20-minute meeting was held between Meriwether, Sheriff Joe Wampler, Undersheriff Jerry Brown, Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz and Francis April 14, to conduct a quick review of the previous negotiations and how best to proceed with a new set of talks.

As a result of goal-setting meetings, the initial letter and the brief cross agency meeting, all parties "agreed to look into this further," said Francis.

"We are in drafting a letter of understanding now," said Meriwether, "but we don't have anything firm in place yet for how to approach this. We have made some contacts for facilitation services. This type of reorganization is more common in Washington state, but there are a few examples in Oregon, as well."

"Neither the city or the county is interested in changing charters," Francis clarified. That stipulation would effectively eliminate a regional "combined" force.

In a previous administrative position Francis assisted in the combination of three separate police departments into one regional division, but clarified that this process would more likely involve a proposal from the sheriff's department to provide contracted law enforcement services to the city.

According to Meriwether, Cascade Locks already contracts with the sheriff's department to provide its law enforcement services.

When asked how city police officer positions would be affected, Francis said, "I don't yet know what that would mean specifically. But I would rather have people ask me those questions now, because if they do that we can leave no stone unturned."

"We will research and comply with the statutes," said Meriwether. "That will be part of the fact-finding process."

Francis was referring to an anticipated long public process and information-gathering period in which the feasibility of the concept would be evaluated by a task force, reviewed by labor attorneys and, if deemed appropriate, put into a formal contractual proposal between the two entities.

With the obvious questions looming on city police officer employment, Francis did provide reference to Oregon State Statutes 236.610 through 236.650, in which provisions for employees being transferred are outlined.

Both Meriwether and Francis, along with city and county attorneys, will be reviewing regulations in depth as part of the task force undertaking.

"We may get to the end of the feasibility period and find it is not workable," said Francis. That process, he said, will involve the help of outside experts who have undergone a similar transition.

"There is no provision in the current budget or planned for 2012 to deal with this," Meriwether said. "It is more likely to be an issue for the 2013 budget. We will be doing a fiscal analysis as we go forward, examining what a contractual service would look like."

"We are not looking at this as a cost savings move. We may not see any savings in the short term, or the initial long term. We are looking at efficiency and better coverage for both the city and the county," said Francis.

The reference to "better coverage," according to Francis, speaks to the possibility, with a larger sheriff's department providing contracted services, to cover sick leave, family medical leave and vacations - all of which pose challenges within two smaller pools of employees.

"This could eliminate redundancies in both organizations," said Francis. "We have good law enforcement departments, as evidenced by recent events, but both are stretched pretty thin.

"If we are going to go down this road, we will ensure there are plenty of open and public discussions so that all residents will know what is taking place," Francis said.

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