Dozens of people get lost every year in the Inland Northwest, sending search dogs and rescuers on long missions at taxpayers’ expense.
Sheriffs departments, responsible for organizing and supervising searches, are frustrated that they cannot recover most search costs, even in cases of negligence.
Recent searches have included:
A Kidd Island Bay man, drinking and on medication, disappeared one evening two weeks ago. His worried family phoned police, and two dog teams, 16 searchers and a dozen vehicles were called out.
After 2-1/2 hours of looking, the 48-year-old man was found. He was sitting on the roof of his house, watching all the excitement.
Last summer, a 19-year-old man reported knocking a man off State Line Centennial Bridge in a scuffle. Police, rescue boats and a dive team went to the bridge at midnight.
The next morning, the man admitted he’d lied as an excuse to explain his tardiness in getting home.
Eight weeks ago, an 11-year-old autistic boy ran away from school and into the woods near Sandpoint.
Thirty deputies and volunteers, aided by dogs from Sandpoint and Spokane, combed the woods for five hours before the boy turned up. It was the sixth time in seven months the boy had run off. The last few times, he had hidden in bushes, watching people search for him.
The total cost of these searches was about $15,000.
Taxpayers paid the bills.
Under Idaho and Washington law, sheriffs are responsible for search-and-rescue operations, but there are no laws forcing rescued or found people to pay search costs.
Both states have small funds to reimburse search-andrescue units for gas, food, lodging and the like. But many costs, such as deputies’ pay, snowmobiles and aircraft time, come out of the pockets of local taxpayers.
“If we’ve got a search that costs $1,000, we can typically get $400 back,” said Bonner County Sheriff Chip Roos, president of the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association. “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for others’ gross negligence.”
Bonner County sends deputies on about 40 searches a year, he said.
“There’s more and more people, recreation goes up, and you’ve got a bunch of novice people in their Eddie Bauer coat and boots who don’t take any precautions,” he said.
“The yo-yo who at 4 o’clock in the afternoon goes over the back of the hill at Schweitzer (ski resort) and causes an all-nighter for everyone - that person ought to be able to pick up a check for all the misery he caused everyone.”
In relatively urban counties such as Spokane, searches aren’t that significant an expense - there isn’t much wilderness to get lost in.
Many counties also rely heavily on volunteer search-and-rescue units, which help by raising funds and soliciting donated gear and food.
Still, a complex search quickly can become expensive. Such was the case in Blaine County, Idaho, last July when Sun Valley businessman Francis “Buddy” Feltman led searchers on a bizarre wild-goose chase.
More than 250 people in kayaks and aircraft and on foot spent a week searching for Feltman, 56, after he had disappeared on a solo fishing trip. Fearing the worst, two dive teams searched the Big Wood River for Feltman’s body.
Eight days after he had disappeared, Feltman turned up - very much alive - in Louisiana.
He was in serious financial trouble, authorities said. Investors in Feltman’s sunglasses company had been scheduled to visit, but Feltman apparently had been spending their money on himself.
The search cost $35,000.
Two years ago, the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association asked the Legislature to pass a law allowing sheriffs to demand repayment in such cases.
“It never got out of committee,” said Roos.
Shoshone County Sheriff Dan Schierman said legislators feared sheriffs would abuse the power, sending people huge bills. “You just receipt everything and have a board that oversees costs,” he said.
Discretion is important, too, Schierman said. He doesn’t relish the idea of handing a bill to a widow, for example, or to someone who wasn’t negligent.
He cited last month’s rescue of Pullman teen Andy Zeller.
A novice, Zeller had skied too far outside the boundaries of Silver Mountain ski resort. He was lost for 45 hours while searchers in Sno-Cats and on snowmobiles and snowshoes looked for him.
Zeller, huddled on pine boughs in a snow cave, survived without serious injury.
The Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Forest Service and Silver Mountain ski resort spent about $8,000 on the search. But Schierman said he won’t bill Zeller or his family for what was an honest mistake.
In cases of negligence, some counties send a bill and hope it will be paid. It often is.
In Feltman’s case, the Blaine County Sheriff’s Department billed his company - and his family - for the $35,000 in search costs.
“We got about 75 cents on the dollar,” a sheriff’s deputy said.
In Kootenai County, sheriff’s Lt. Skip Rapp agrees there ought to be a way to bill people for unnecessary searches.
Three winters ago, for example, a man got his truck stuck in drifting snow on Rathdrum Prairie. He walked to a friend’s house, and they came back in another truck to pull out the first.
The second truck became stuck, too.
They hiked out and got another friend - and a third truck.
And so on.
“They had five different vehicles back there, all of them stuck,” Rapp said, his voice rising in disbelief even after three years. Search-and-rescue workers finally carried the men out on snowmobiles.
“That is absolute stupidity,” he said. “The first was an accident. The second was iffy. Every one after that was stupidity.”
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