September 23, 2009 in City

Spokane Valley mulls own police

Consultants cite cost, better public presence
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane Valley would save more than $1 million a year by operating its own police department, according to a newly released study.

City officials commissioned the $126,500 study by the International City/County Management Association after a dispute over the amount Spokane County charges for police service and a county decision to cancel the city’s contract for snowplowing.

The study says a city-operated department would cost about $255,910 more in its first year than the city now pays the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office for police service because of one-time startup costs.

After that, the city would pay about $1.1 million a year less if it ran its own police department, the report states.

The estimates are based on this year’s expenditures, which are expected to total about $15.5 million. The report cautions that the savings would be reduced if the city chose to establish its own property and records management facility instead of sharing with Spokane and Spokane County.

A team of three law enforcement professionals performed the study, which included comparisons with similar county-city contracts in King and Pierce counties and in Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Although the consulting report estimates savings from a Spokane Valley-operated police department and points out a number of weaknesses in the current arrangement, it makes no recommendation.

Rather, the report says city officials “may well” wish to continue their contract with the sheriff. The three-member study team notes the contract reduces the city’s legal liability.

The nonprofit SCOPE organization that supports the sheriff’s office throughout the county, including Spokane Valley, is listed as a benefit that couldn’t easily be replaced.

And the consulting report commends the professionalism of officers at the Spokane Valley police station.

For example, the consultants concluded Spokane Valley police supervision is “inadequate and extremely costly for the actual supervision being performed.” In particular, they say there aren’t enough lieutenants permanently assigned to the city force.

Nevertheless, the consultants say the department’s sergeants are “highly trained and experienced” and seem “willing and able to make decisions with little concern that they will be second-guessed or criticized.”

Sometimes a sergeant may be the only supervisor on duty, as on the day consultants visited the department. The sergeant was on overtime because the regularly assigned sergeant had a contractual day off.

“It appears that a considerable amount of overtime is being used and charged back to the city of Spokane Valley,” the report states.

Lack of on-site management affects not only police operations, but “community and, likely, political relations,” the report says.

The police station at 12710 E. Sprague Ave. has limited value as a community institution because it is in a “nondescript” building with “little signage” and an inhospitable lobby, consultants say. There isn’t even an emergency phone outside the building to allow people to contact officers in the building when it’s closed to the public.

Because the city police force operates more as a division of the sheriff’s office than a stand-alone department, “the lines between the two are blurry and, at worst, confusing,” the report states.

The Spokane Valley police chief is the only supervisor who answers to City Manager Dave Mercier, and Mercier doesn’t have enough control over the chief, according to the consultants.

They note that Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is obliged to present only one candidate for the chief’s job, and there is no provision for dismissing a chief who proves unsatisfactory. The consultants say Knezovich should be required to offer at least three candidates, and Mercier alone should be empowered to remove a chief.

However, city officials have expressed no dissatisfaction with Chief Rick Van Leuven, who previously was a sheriff’s lieutenant.

Whether the city stays with the sheriff’s contract or sets up its own department, it needs better statistical reports that compare Spokane Valley with other communities, according to the consultants.

Mayor Rich Munson said city and county officials received the report Monday and were still considering its contents.


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