Friday, February 20, 2009

Sheriff gets earful at Ketchum Police meeting

Discussion over merging of forces continues

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum resident and business owner Beth Grinstead was one of a number of people to speak against a contract for service with the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Walt Femling’s contract, as proposed, would cut about $400,000 from the city’s expenditures on Police Department personnel. Photo by Willy Cook

The future of the Ketchum Police Department remains unclear following a presentation on a proposed contract for service by Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling on Tuesday evening before the City Council.

While the council gave no indication as to whether it found the proposal agreeable, a number of former City Hall denizens, including former Police Chief Cal Nevland and former Mayor Ed Simon, argued strenuously against it.

Femling told council members, and residents and police officers filling the council chamber, that he could save the city about $400,000 while improving the level of service.

The sheriff presented two options for taking over law enforcement responsibilities in the city, one for $1.123 million and the other for $1.102 million. He said the difference between the two options is related to how personnel are positioned under the contract.

The city budgeted $1.5 million for police department salaries at the beginning of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. However, City Administrator Gary Marks estimated last month that the city is on track to save $350,000 due to three vacancies in the department, including two patrol officers and former Police Chief Cory Lyman, who stepped down from the position in mid-October.

Femling did not, however, explain how he would achieve the cost savings between Ketchum's budget and his proposal.

Under Femling's proposal, the city would continue to pay capital expenses related to law enforcement, estimated at $188,500 for this fiscal year. Femling said the city would retain ownership of all its equipment, including cars, office and computers, as well as any money in the department's trust.

It was Lyman's departure that catalyzed deliberations about the Police Department, with options consisting of a possible contract with the Sheriff's Office, hiring Interim Police Chief Mike McNeil to the position full time, recruiting a chief from outside the department or a consolidation with the Sun Valley Police Department.

"I've been surprised to hear how much criticism of this process there has been," Councilman Charles Conn said. "It's always good to compare external candidates with internal ones—this way we can be confident we did our fiduciary duty. I certainly haven't made up my mind."

Conn's comment came after a number of Ketchum residents and former city officials spoke against a contract with the sheriff before Femling had even made his presentation.

"I think it's a bad idea," former Mayor Simon said. "We shouldn't ignore local control."

Former Police Chief Nevland agreed with Simon, a surprise to many in attendance who remembered the pair better for their history of butting heads than for working in unison.

"It's disgusting to slam (Interim Chief) Mike McNeil with this option," Nevland said heatedly.

In 2002, while in charge of the police department, Nevland, along with McNeil, filed a lawsuit against the city after Nevland and then-mayor Simon disagreed over who had the authority to hire a new assistant police chief. Nevland wanted McNeil while Simon hired Blaine County Sheriff's Lt. Ron Taylor. In the end, Nevland prevailed, with McNeil assuming the post and the city paying $65,000 for his trouble.

Coincidentally, Taylor has taken over the Bellevue Marshal's Office in a similar contract for service with Femling, implemented in December 2007.

Femling said that, as with Bellevue, such a contract could improve the level of service by increasing the number of patrol officers on Ketchum's streets. He said that by retaining the current officers, the majority would be familiar to residents.

"This conversation can't go forward if our constituents can't see an increase in performance," Conn said.

Councilman Curtis Kemp also asked Femling to return with details regarding the proposed cost reductions, but no date was set for a further meeting with the sheriff.

Councilman Baird Gourlay's question for all of the law enforcement officers in the room was more straightforward.

"Does anyone know where my motorcycle is?" asked Gourlay, who had a high-end, off-road motorcycle stolen from his house nearly two years ago.

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