Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ketchum to move on cop contract

Details still to come; Hall looks at fire consolidation next

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling told the Ketchum City Council and members of the public Monday that a contract for service with his department would increase the level of law enforcement in Ketchum while saving the city money. Photo by Willy Cook

Ketchum is one step closer to seeing Blaine County cops patrolling its streets.

At a meeting Monday, the Ketchum City Council unanimously voted to move forward with a contract for police services with the Blaine County Sheriff's Office.

The contract, which would be negotiated with the County Commission, would give Sheriff Walt Femling control over law enforcement responsibilities in Ketchum. The county has a similar contract with the city of Bellevue, in place since the end of 2007.

Ketchum City Administrator Gary Marks gave a presentation to a full council chamber showing anticipated cost savings from the proposed contract, which he put at $1.16 million over four years. Marks calculated the savings by looking at what it would cost the city to restaff its police department, currently down from 12 officers to eight and without a full-time chief or assistant chief.

Femling, who attended the meeting, said that if the contract is approved, Blaine County Sheriff's Detective Steve Harkins would take over as police chief. Harkins is chief detective for the sheriff's office and director of the Blaine County Narcotics Enforcement Team.

Harkins would be the fourth officer to hold the position in less than a year. Cory Lyman stepped down in October to take an emergency services job in Salt Lake City, with former Assistant Chief Mike McNeil stepping in for the interim. McNeil negotiated an early retirement in April, 16 months before he was officially eligible. McNeil was followed by Ketchum Police Sgt. Dave Kassner, who was tapped to take over while the city looks at options for a permanent replacement.

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall said that after meeting with officers in the Police Department to discuss a possible contract, he thought it only fair to ensure that the existing officers maintain their salaries in a transition and also receive compensation for the county's lower insurance benefits.

Other parts of the deal include hiring an additional officer, leaving vacant the assistant chief position and partial payout of accrued vacation time for existing officers.

By Marks' estimation, the city would save between $250,000 and $300,000 annually over the next four years, as well as just over $22,000 for the remainder of the 2009 fiscal year.

"The issue is how to create efficiencies and save taxpayers money," Hall said. "We can't get the amount of service [we would like for the money] we are currently budgeting for."

Hall said the possibility of a contract first arose after he was chastised last year by Blaine County Prosecutor Jim Thomas for investigative mishaps, including evidence mishandling that caused the case against attempted murder suspect Deborah Reimer to be thrown out.

Femling contended the contract would increase the overall performance of the Ketchum department.

But some members of the public didn't share Hall's enthusiasm for the idea, including Lt. Steve England, an officer in the Hailey Police Department who ran against Femling in last year's sheriff's election.

England said he was testifying on behalf of friends in the Ketchum force. He said a contract could lower the level of service in the town since officers could be sent on calls into the county.

Femling argued that as part of a larger organization, the Ketchum Police Department would have more resources and greater flexibility to move officers around.

Former Ketchum Mayor Ed Simon spoke against the contract, criticizing Hall for what he called a process "fraught with terrible confusion." Simon noted that not a single existing Ketchum officer spoke on the issue and that the figures presented by Marks were mere speculation considering that the details of the contract have yet to be determined.

Simon's statement drew a surprising amount of ire from Hall, who, in turn, criticized his predecessor for having ulterior motives.

The council agreed with Hall's recommendation, but said that the "devil is in the details," meaning that final approval will only be given on close scrutiny of the contractual language.

Marks said he hopes to have a formal contract in front of the council in about a month. Hall said the public will have an opportunity to comment before the council makes its decision.

Marks said the first contract would be for 16 months, after which the council and the Blaine County Commission would review the agreement annually.

Hall also said the city would look into consolidation of the Sun Valley and Ketchum fire departments.

"If Sun Valley wants access 24/7 and to ride on our coattails for their insurance ratings, they're going to have to pay for it," Hall said, without elaborating on how such a payment would be made.

Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich, who has repeatedly voiced his opposition to such a merger, said in an interview that his department has provided more aid to its Ketchum counterpart than the other way around.

"I look forward to comparing response data and budgets, and then we'll see who's carrying whom," Willich said.

Jon Duval:

Hall apologizes to Simon for outburst

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall issued a public apology to former Ketchum Mayor Ed Simon, as well as the rest of the community, after he angrily singled out Simon for his criticism of the potential contract for service with the Blaine County Sheriff's Office.

Hall clearly took offense when Simon called the contract process "confusing" and asked the city to look into ways to reduce expenses while retaining the independence of its police department.

Hall said Simon's comments were merely an attempt to help a campaign to run for public office this fall.

"I don't think there's been anyone that's done more harm to the department than you," Hall said to Simon in front of an increasingly uncomfortable audience, which began to boo Hall.

Simon was recalled from his City Council seat in 1992 as a result of an attempt to fire then-Police Chief Cal Nevland.

"I owe Ed, the community and the council an apology," Hall said Tuesday in an interview. "What I did was disrespectful, rude and unacceptable. I lost my temper and I regret it. I know better and that's not my style."

Simon, who has made no secret about his possible candidacy, said that he accepted Hall's apology.

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