Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bellevue to bolster law enforcement

City marshal and sheriff?s office will likely merge


Tim Green

By JON DUVAL and JASON KAUFFMAN

Express Staff Writers

After a summer spent watching its law enforcement ranks dwindle until only a lone officer was left, the Bellevue City Council made a move to vastly improve police coverage before the new year arrives.

The council on Monday, Nov. 19, listened to a short presentation by Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling before it unanimously approved a contract for services that will provide the city with round-the-clock law enforcement.

The following day, the Blaine County Commission also reviewed the contract, which will cost the city $352,361, according to Bellevue City Attorney Jim Phillips. The contract will be for 10 months instead of a full year in order to match up with the city's fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The commissioners seemed in favor of the contract, but decided to delay a vote until their next regular meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 27.

Femling said the contract was based on a similar agreement between Star, a city of approximately 3,000 located just northwest of Boise, and Ada County.

With $430,563 originally budgeted for the Bellevue Marshal's Office in 2007-2008, the city is set to save nearly $600 per month by contracting with the county. However, the city will continue to pay for the maintenance and utilities of its existing Marshal's Office building, which will remain open.

"It's basically a wash budget-wise," Femling told the City Council. "But you get five officers and animal control."

Femling said sheriff's Lt. Ron Taylor would take over as full-time Bellevue marshal, a position now held by Bellevue's sole officer, Tim Green. Four additional full-time officers and an administrative employee, available during regular business hours, will join Taylor in Bellevue.

"We've been working on getting ready for a December 1 start," Femling said. "However, we will be hiring, so it will be a little while until we're fully up to speed."

Femling explained that once fully staffed, his office will be able to provide 24-hour coverage, a service that is impossible under the current situation.

"It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know we're lacking in coverage right now," Councilman Shaun Mahoney said in an interview. "Our goal was 24/7 coverage and this is exactly what we'll be getting."

Mahoney added that the agreement is hardly a novel idea.

"It's so hard for small towns to recruit and retain officers and we're seeing these kinds of contracts happening all over the United States," he said.

City residents made it clear that they weren't satisfied with the current level of service when a citizens' advisory committee recommended a tax levy increase to improve law enforcement.

When the contract was first proposed in September, Marshal Green said that retaining officers had become difficult since they use Bellevue as a springboard, receiving necessary training before moving to more lucrative positions in other towns.

The gravity of the situation was exemplified in August when the Marshal's Office lost its second deputy in 18 months to the Hailey Police Department.

Femling stressed that the Bellevue Marshal's Office would maintain its identity, as both vehicles and uniforms will carry both Bellevue and sheriff's office markings. In addition, patrolling officers will be issued a Bellevue citation book so the city can receive that revenue.

Should the contract expire or be terminated, Femling said, Bellevue will retain ownership of all law enforcement property it currently owns or buys in the future.

If their reaction to Femling's pitch on Tuesday morning was any indication, the County Commissioners appear headed toward unanimous support for the plan.

"Once again, Bellevue is going to be a good partner with the county," Commissioner Larry Schoen said.

Still, in noting the significance the change represents, Schoen asked Femling whether he plans to do any outreach in the Bellevue community to explain the shift in responsibility.

"For many people this is a significant change," Schoen said.

Femling said the city is considering placing information on the change in city water bills, as well as holding an open house for the public "so we can get some direction from the citizens of Bellevue on what's important to them."




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