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Town looks at outsourcing police, other options

Coupeville Deputy Marshal Hodges Gowdey sits in his patrol car off North Main Street. Staffing problems have struck the tiny office hard and the Town Council is considering several options to address the problem, including outsourcing law enforcement to another agency. - Justin Burnett photo
Coupeville Deputy Marshal Hodges Gowdey sits in his patrol car off North Main Street. Staffing problems have struck the tiny office hard and the Town Council is considering several options to address the problem, including outsourcing law enforcement to another agency.
— image credit: Justin Burnett photo

Under one of several options being considered by the Coupeville Town Council to address staffing woes in the Marshal’s Office, law enforcement services may be contracted out to a neighboring agency.

Last week, the council unanimously approved a not-to-exceed $10,000 contract with Snohomish County Undersheriff Tom Davis for consulting services at their regular Tuesday meeting.

Davis has a private consulting firm and will investigate the viability of outsourcing law enforcement services to the Island County Sheriff’s Office, the Oak Harbor Police Department or both.

Specifically, he is to identify service options, negotiate potential costs with the neighboring agencies and then help town officials evaluate whether this is the best option.

The two other solutions under consideration include: reorganizing the marshal’s office within the existing budget — the number of officers would be reduced from five to four and funding from the dissolved position reallocated to the remaining officers — and increasing pay and benefits through a yet-to-be-determined tax increase.

Both of those options are being looked at by Mayor Nancy Conard and Marshal Lance Davenport.

In an interview this week, Councilman and Mayor Pro-tem Bob Clay said nothing is decided, but contracting out law enforcement services, and the possibility of dissolving the marshal’s office altogether, is a consideration.

“It’s really hard for a town our size to provide services like we used to,” said Clay, referring to long-gone Coupeville agencies, such as the town fire department and library.

“We’re just trying to look for a better way to spend the taxpayers money and get the services we need,” Clay said.

According to Conard, it’s way too soon to make any conclusions about the fate of the Marshal’s Office. If it was decided to contract out services, and the other options discarded, that may be accomplished in a variety of ways.

“It’s the natural thing to assume there would be no marshal’s office, but I’m not sure that’s true,” Conard said. “It may be one option of many.”

Department of two

Last fall, the marshal’s office lost 75 percent of its work force when three officers left the tiny department. Two took better paying jobs elsewhere and another left for personal reasons.

Deputy Marshal Hodges Gowdey, a department veteran of nearly 13 years, and Davenport are all that remain.

With just two officers left, town officials employed a temporary stop-gap of hiring reserve officers from Oak Harbor and the sheriff’s office to maintain 24-hour response in Coupeville.

During Tuesday’s council meeting, Conard said she believed the town’s temporary measures have been successful.

Some of the reserve officers are former marshals and have been “warmly welcomed” back by members of the community, she said.

Davenport agrees. In an interview this past Friday, he said the situation is not perfect but felt the mitigation is meeting the needs of the community and that there is no prevalent public safety risk.

“It’s actually worked really well,” Davenport said.

“Given that we’ve lost 75 percent of the marshal’s office, I can’t think of a better scenario,” he said.

On-call response

So far, the department has been able to provide 24-hour response with just Gowdey and the reserve marshals.

But it’s not a perfect system and it’s not the same as 24-hour coverage.

Providing 24-hour response means an officer will respond to a 911 call made at any time of the day, seven days a week. The same is true for 24-hour coverage but the difference is in response time.

Coupeville is currently using an on-call system, meaning officers who aren’t on shift but are ready to suit up and spring into action the moment a call comes in.

According to Gowdey, it generally takes them about 15 minutes to arrive.

That stacks up to a response of about two minutes for officers who are already in a car and on patrol, he said.

“You will get a police officer on scene,” Gowdey said. “This issue is how long will that take.”

Davenport, who voiced concerns about publishing schedule specifics, confirmed that on-call officers are currently used for about 10 to 12 hours a day, four to five days out of the week.

Island County sheriff’s deputies also respond to calls in Coupeville, but there is no guarantee they will respond.

The department has staffing issues of its own and officers may be tied up on calls of their own.

Davenport said dealing with multiple calls is a problem for all police departments of small size and limited budgets.

Even when Coupeville was fully staffed, only one officer was usually on patrol at a time.

“That’s small town policing,” he said.

Uncertain future

Given its shortcomings, Gowdey agrees that the system is working as a temporary stop-gap. But, as the last member of the deputy marshal’s guild – Coupeville’s police union – he has concerns about his job.

If law enforcement services were contracted out, and the marshal’s office dissolved,  Gowdey said it’s not uncommon for the new agency to pick up the officers from the old department.

“I would fully expect it but it still makes you nervous,” he said.

Conard, however, said the hired consultant could come back with any number of solutions, including options that would see the retention of the marshal’s office.

For example, just administrative services might be contracted out, which would mean the department and uniforms could stay the same.

“It’s done in lots of different ways,” Conard said.

“We get to define what kinds of service we want,” she said.

According to Clay, if the council does decide to dissolve the agency altogether, it wouldn’t be an unheard of step.

Coupeville once had a fire department and library, but both are now served by junior taxing districts per a public vote.

Also, other small towns and cities struggling to maintain existing and historical services have decided to pursue similar alternatives in the face of limited funding.

“We are not reinventing the wheel,” Clay said. “There are plenty of other municipalities who have already done this.

Davenport, whose job may also be uncertain, said he believed they are one of just two marshal’s offices left in the state.

Only towns of a certain size are allowed to have them; cities have police departments.

Dissolving the office may turn out to be the necessary choice, but it would still be difficult decision.

“If it’s the route we go, it’s sad,” he said.

 

Community Events, April 2014

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