Bonner County’s marine division could be sunk next year if commissioners agree to slash funding that keeps deputies and patrol boats on the lakes.
“There is no logic I can see with this,” said Bonner County Sheriff Chip Roos of a proposed $30,000 budget cut. “It would be devastating to our operations.”
A preliminary budget for the marine division gives the department $72,500 to operate. Salaries alone for this year were about $77,887 for one full-time officer and five part-timers.
“Under that kind of budget the boats would literally be tied up and docked unless there was an emergency on the lake,” said Marine Sgt. Larry Schulze. “It would gut the marine division. If we have a missing boater or a body lost in the water, we are not going to have the money to go out looking for them.”
Officers recently spent days using sonar looking for the body of a trucker who drove into the Clark Fork River and was swept away into the lake.
Bonner County has the most water in the state to patrol, about 192 square miles, including Lake Pend Oreille, Priest Lake, the Pend Oreille River and Lake Cocolalla. Kootenai County comes in second with about 71 square miles.
“We have nearly three times the amount of water of any other county. The law is clear, we are responsible to patrol it and for search and rescue operations,” Roos said.
Commissioners Larry Allen and Bud Mueller have promised to make budget cuts and give residents less government. Allen has even said he won’t sign off on a budget for next year unless it is less than the current budget.
None of the commissioners, however, have yet said where the cuts will come from. The Sheriff’s Department officials will meet with commissioners Monday afternoon to haggle over dollars, including funds for the marine division and a student drug education program.
Roos said Mueller told him and others at a meeting that he saw a patrol boat on the water at 3 a.m.
“He said that was ridiculous to be out at that hour and we must just be playing around, and in his words, he was going to put a stop to that.”
The boat was dispatched to a distress call on the lake, Roos said. He claims Mueller is set on slashing the division’s budget and has listened to a few upset residents who were cited by marine deputies.
Mueller is out of town and unavailable for comment.
The marine division currently has four large patrol boats, all paid for with grant money and not taxpayer dollars. One is loaded with firefighting equipment to battle house fires along the lake or at marinas.
Without that boat, Schulze said all deputies can do is watch homes burn or tow a burning boat into the lake to keep it from damaging other vessels in a marina. The marine division now pays about $21,000 a year for fuel and about $8,000 to store and moor the boats. The new proposal leaves only $14,667 for fuel. That would allow only two boats to be operational, one at Priest Lake and one on Lake Pend Oreille.
If more enforcement is needed, the county could turn over duties on Lake Pend Oreille to the U.S. Coast Guard, Schulze said. Since they are a federal agency and operate under federal law, fines and violations on the water would be more serious.
An average state fine is $300 whereas a Coast Guard citation is about $1,000, Schulze said.
“I don’t think that would make the boating public very happy,” he said.
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