Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Valley police cope with staff shortages

Housing key factor in keeping staff

Express Staff Writer

Understaffing has become a chronic problem among police departments throughout the Wood River Valley.

A total of 10 vacancies now exist among Blaine County's five police departments. The positions will eventually be filled, but several factors, especially the high cost of housing, leave local police departments with a permanently high turnover rate.

"Filling these spots, it's a tough deal," said Ketchum Police Chief Cory Lyman. "It's a valley-wide challenge."

Local police chiefs say they have been able to juggle schedules to provide a temporarily adequate level of services.

"We've been kind of patching the boat with Band-Aids," Lyman said.

However, the shortages stretch services thinner than desired, require more overtime pay and make life tougher for the officers.

Three of the valley's police vacancies are in the Ketchum department. Lyman said he has made job offers to fill two detective positions, and hopes to hire a local man to fill an officer's position by July.

Ketchum's shortage was exacerbated by a city decision last year to drop two community service officers, who handle parking violations and animal control, as a cost-saving measure. Lyman said he has since realized that the department needs those people and will request funding for them for next year. In the meantime, one officer will be hired with money saved by the department's vacancies.

Lyman said most of the people who have left the department told him they just couldn't afford to live here. When they see the prices of housing in other areas, he said, it's easy for police departments there to lure them away.

Ketchum Mayor Ed Simon said the city cannot pay police officers salaries high enough to allow them to qualify for local home mortgages. In the long run, he said, providing affordable housing will be less expensive.

"All of the cities are eventually going to start owning their own properties," he said.

Ketchum hopes to build as many as 30 such units on the north end of the city-owned Park and Ride lot on Saddle Road.

Simon said the city will also continue to pursue discussions with Sun Valley on how the two cities can consolidate some of their emergency services.

In Hailey, Police Chief Brian McNary reported similar housing problems. He said larger areas such as Boise also entice local officers with city amenities and more exciting police work.

"We're never able to keep the kind of adrenaline junkies that seem to be attracted to law enforcement," McNary said. "People have unrealistic expectations about the excitement of law enforcement in a small town."

The Hailey department is currently lacking two officers and a secretary. McNary said the department has compensated by cutting sick time and vacations, moving a school resource officer to patrol duty and putting the chief to work part time as an officer. He said that since the last officer who left was paid for accumulated sick time and overtime, the city cannot afford to hire a replacement until August.

At Sun Valley, Sgt. Kim Orchard said the department has hired people to fill its two open positions. They will graduate from the Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training Academy this summer and go to work.

Orchard said turnover is generally not a big problem for the department, but finding housing for applicants always is.

The Blaine County Sheriff's Office is lacking a jailer and a dispatcher. In addition, one newly hired deputy is attending the POST Academy.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Gene Ramsey said the 44-person department, which includes jail staff, has been experiencing a very high turnover rate for the past year or so.

"At one time, when you'd recruit, you'd get a lot of applicants," he said. "Now you just get a handful."

Ramsey said fewer people seem to want to make the commitment to the odd hours required by police work.

He said the department has compensated for the personnel shortage by paying more overtime, reducing vacation time and ending a flexible time-off program.

Blaine County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael said she expects the commission to put its energy into relieving staffing pressure on the sheriff's office as soon as it gets a new jail built. She said creating affordable housing for the department's employees will be the first priority toward that end.

According to interim Bellevue Marshal Scott Smyth, his office is fully staffed, but the city's budget leaves it with a police roster perpetually inadequate to run a 24-hour department.

Smyth said Bellevue officers are on duty only 12 hours a day. The rest of the time, calls are fielded by sheriff's deputies.

"It's a courtesy (Sheriff Walt Femling) has extended to us," Smyth said. "It could go away at any time."

Smyth said the marshal's office receives about three times the number of calls it did when he joined it about six years ago, and the budget has not kept pace. The department has four full-time officers, as it did when Smyth joined, but due to city growth, one has since been dedicated to administrative duties.

On May 24, Bellevue residents rejected a proposed increase in the city's property tax levy that would have put additional funds into city services. Smyth said the levy increase had been viewed as "the light at the end of the tunnel." Now, he said, "we don't see any end in sight."

But county Commissioner Dennis Wright, a Bellevue resident, questioned whether Bellevue needs a 24-hour police force.

"I think it's a prime time for Bellevue to consider another model," he said, "because it takes an awful lot of money to build an effective police department."

Wright pointed out that local option taxes play a large role in allowing Ketchum and Sun Valley to have their own full-time police departments.

"None of us would have any problem if we got that, but we don't," he said.

Wright pointed out that due to its collection of property taxes from the cities' residents, the county has an obligation to provide services to them as well as to people living outside city limits.

"For what Bellevue spends today, and probably less, I am sure they could find an adequate level of service provided by Blaine County," he said.

Even with the current shortages, the Wood River Valley has a higher per capita rate of police officers than the Idaho average. According to FBI statistics, Idaho has 1.8 officers per 1,000 population. With its current 48 local officers and one state police officer, Blaine County's rate is 2.3 per thousand. That's identical to the national average.

At full staffing, the county's rate would be 2.6 officers per 1,000 people.

Ketchum Assistant Police Chief Mike McNeil said that is due to two factors—an expectation by local residents of a higher level of service and the regular influx of tourists.

"We have provided services in this community that other departments don't provide," he said, "like (car) lockouts and alarm calls. If you were in New York, you'd have to call a locksmith."

As another example, at a Ketchum City Council meeting last week, residents complained about a lack of speeding enforcement on Warm Springs Road, even though by normal standards Ketchum police make frequent patrols there.

Without a substantial funding increase, McNeil said, "we may get to the point where we stop doing lockouts and we stop doing alarm calls."

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