Goal is more patrol time for town’s officers
By Don Nelson
Personnel issues, including a proposal to reduce the number of full-time Winthrop police officers from three to two, dominated the Town Council’s 2016 budget discussions at its meeting last week.
A recommendation to shift priorities and responsibilities within the Winthrop Marshal’s Office, proposed by acting Marshal Ken Bajema in his 2016 departmental budget, drew the most attention from council members.
Bajema had asked for a full-time clerk to handle a variety of tasks, freeing officers from paperwork and other distractions so they can spend more time patrolling and responding to citizens’ concerns. The proposed Marshal’s Office budget, which Bajema said would not be increased in 2016, provides for two officers.
The Marshal’s Office has been budgeted for three full-time officers, but has only sporadically had that many officers on duty over the past few years. In that time a marshal and two deputies have been hired, but all are now gone — leaving Bajema as the town’s only police officer.
Mayor Sue Langdalen, who reviews department head budget requests before preparing her own budget for the council’s consideration, had recommended a 28-hour-a-week position for the police clerk.
Bajema told the council he was pushing for a full-time clerk to answer phones, deal with public records requests, reach out to the community as necessary including improved social media efforts, work on grant proposals, assure compliance with rules and procedures that apply to the department, and work on clearing up a sizable paperwork backlog.
The department won’t be able to attract good candidates if it doesn’t offer enough hours and an adequate salary, Bajema said. The position was budgeted at $16.50 an hour.
Taking administrative duties out of the officers’ hands will free them up for more effective police work, Bajema said. He said the department could hire part-time officers to fill in as necessary.
Council member Mike Strulic, citing turnover in the Marshal’s Office, said he supported Bajema’s proposals because they could help restore stability. Council member Vern Herrst said that a full-time clerk would likely improve officers’ response times to calls.
Council member Rick Northcott said he saw merit in the recommendation, but noted that Bajema’s proposal amounts to a significant reorganization of the department. “This is about what we want to do in the long term” with the Marshal’s Office, Northcott said.
Langdalen said she still supported a 28-hour a week position, in part because the town would not have to pay benefits. She said she preferred starting with fewer hours and them adding more hours as needed. “If we go full-time and then have to pull back, that’s hard,” she said.
Bajema told the council that “I’m trying to turn this department around, and I’m not asking for more money.” He pointed out that the clerk is an existing position, and he’s not asking to add personnel — only hours.
“We need to get the police department squared away,” Strulic said. “It’s on his [Bajema’s] shoulders if it doesn’t pan out … We can’t afford to have the marshal sitting behind a desk.”
Northcott said he supported Bajema’s proposal and “holding him accountable.” Council member Gaile Bryant-Cannon said he also supported the idea.
Strulic said the council should not get hung up on whether the position should have benefits. “People need to have benefits,” he said. “I don’t want to hem and haw over wages and hours.”
The council settled on a 32-hour-a-week position, which would include benefits. Bajema said he “felt supported here tonight” with the decision. “Thanks for meeting me in the middle,” he said.
At its most recent meeting, the council had declined a proposal from the Town of Twisp to merge law enforcement functions into one department that would have a total of four officers. Twisp currently has two full-time officers.
In other business, the council approved an increase in property tax and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) levies collected by the town to 1 percent over the previous year’s revenues — the maximum increase in tax revenue that can be levied by taxing districts unless voters approve a higher tax rate.
The town collected $168,227 in regular property taxes in 2015, and will collect an additional $1,682 in 2016. The EMS levy, which supports Aero Methow Rescue services, brought in $49,632 this year and will increase by $496 next year.