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Newport Gives County Its Criminal Cases But County Says It Can’t Absorb Costs, Even With Revenue From Fines; Officials Plan To Fight

Pend Oreille County officials were seething Thursday after the city of Newport announced a plan to force the county to pay for prosecuting most misdemeanor criminal cases in the city.

In a letter delivered to county officials Wednesday, Mayor Kevin Murphy said the city would no longer pay any of the costs of prosecuting people charged with crimes such as fourth-degree assault and drunken driving.

While acknowledging that they’re looking for ways to cut costs, city officials insisted that revenue from fines would offset the costs they’re shifting to the county. County officials said that’s absurd.

Murphy said the county would be responsible for court costs, prosecution, public defense and jail services because he was ordering city police officers to start charging misdemeanor defendants under state statutes instead of city ordinances. The change took effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday, he said.

The Newport City Council approved the action in a closed session Tuesday after business leaders jammed the council chamber to demand tougher law enforcement against rowdy teenagers the merchants said have taken over Main Street.

County Prosecutor Tom Metzger called it “a slap in the face” that Murphy’s letter was delivered only an hour before the changes took effect.

“This is ridiculous,” County Commission Chairman Karl McKenzie fumed. “We do not have the people in the prosecutor’s office or the sheriff’s office to handle this, especially on no notice.”

McKenzie said commissioners will discuss the issue “at length” Monday. “We’re going to fight it. Period. We can’t go for that.”

Meanwhile, Sheriff Doug Malby said he will continue to bill the city for jail services, but won’t retaliate for its action Wednesday by cutting off dispatching or other services to city police officers. And Metzger said he will prosecute any city cases that come his way until the dispute is resolved.

It’s not clear which side has the upper hand. One state law says counties must prosecute cases charged under state statutes. However, another says cities that repeal their misdemeanor laws but continue to handle lucrative traffic citations must reimburse counties for the shifted burden.

The Legislature passed the law requiring reimbursement after the city of Bellingham gutted its misdemeanor ordinances in 1981. Legislators prescribed binding arbitration for cities and counties that cannot agree on the amount to be reimbursed.

City officials contended the reimbursement law did not apply to Bellingham because the city retained two criminal ordinances: disorderly conduct and a sewer violation. The law says it applies to any city that drops its criminal code “in its entirety.”

But a judge said the intent of the law was clear and ordered Bellingham into binding arbitration. The city is appealing his decision.

Newport’s situation is different because the city is ignoring but not repealing its criminal code. Also, Murphy said Newport will cite traffic offenders under state law, too, so Pend Oreille County can receive the fines.

Murphy said fines last year almost exactly offset the city’s approximate $30,000 cost for prosecution and public defense. He said Wednesday’s action is intended to prove that point.

“That’s ridiculous,” Metzger said. “If it was profitable, they wouldn’t be giving it to us.”

He said he thinks the city is losing money on law enforcement even though it issues lots of traffic citations and doesn’t aggressively prosecute drunken driving cases.

Part-time Newport Prosecutor Mark Hanley, a Spokane attorney, acknowledged that many of his drunken-driving cases are settled with “deferred prosecution,” which results in a fine and avoids a trial. But Hanley said he tries about as many Newport cases each year as Metzger did before the city took over misdemeanor prosecution in 1987.

Hanley said he handled about 500 misdemeanors alone last year, while it took about 1-1/2 prosecutors in Metzger’s office to process about 600 misdemeanors. Hanley said he had to provide his own secretarial support under his $15,000 contract.

Hanley said he understands the City Council’s desire to reduce lawenforcement costs that now take about 60 percent of the city’s general fund. Citizens want better streets, a youth center and a parks department, “but there’s just no money there for those things.”

The city tried in December to cut its law-enforcement costs by asking Sheriff Malby to handle most police work in the city. Malby rejected the proposed contract, which he estimated would save the city about $160,000 a year, because it would shift city prosecution costs to taxpayers throughout the county.