Police department suspended

A sign in John Day supports voting to approve a five-year levy to fund the John Day Police Department. The Aug. 17 ballot measure, which required a double majority, failed due to low turnout even though it got more yes votes than no votes.

JOHN DAY — The John Day Police Department will cease to exist by the end of the month — even though the city has yet to work out an agreement with Grant County to provide law enforcement services through the Sheriff’s Office.

The City Council voted on Tuesday, Oct. 12, to suspend the department’s activities at midnight Oct. 31 in the face of an insurmountable budget shortfall. The vote was unanimous, with Councilor Gregg Haberly absent.

The decision came in the wake of a failed ballot measure last summer that would have raised enough money to fund the department for the next five years. The proposed local option levy actually attracted more yes votes (284) than no votes (169). But the Aug. 17 special election required a double majority for the levy to pass — a majority of votes cast plus a majority of registered voters casting ballots — and a low turnout doomed the measure.

The council referred the measure to the voters after determining that the city did not have enough money to continue funding police services and still balance its budget.

“This is a sad day,” City Manager Nick Green told the council at Tuesday’s meeting. “We fought and fought and fought and we tried and tried and tried, but with the budget the way it is, we just can’t sustain operations.”

City officials had hoped to keep the department going at least until the end of the year while they pursued a three-year grant from the Department of Homeland Security that would provide partial funding for law enforcement services in the city limits. But the grant decision has been delayed, Green said, forcing the city to move up the timetable for halting law enforcement operations even though it’s still in the running for the federal funds.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty around that,” he said. “That’s the reason I’m using the term ‘suspend’ instead of ‘dissolve’ or ‘disband.’”

The department was already down to about half-strength, with just two full-time officers and no chief (Chief Mike Durr retired earlier this year).

The department’s two remaining full-time employees, Sgt. Scott Moore and Officer Travis Piercy, will transition into new jobs with the Public Works Department.

Moore, who attended the meeting, said he and Piercey had been working long hours to patrol the city but couldn’t keep up that pace indefinitely.

“It’s just reality right now,” he said. “With just the two of us, it’s just not feasible. … It’s just not safe.”

Several councilors expressed dismay that the city could no longer keep the department running.

Heather Rookstool said she didn’t want to suspend the Police Department but didn’t see any alternative. With such a small force, she said, officer safety is compromised.

“I hate this, but with only two (officers), I don’t see this as something we can do,” she said. “I don’t want to be the reason for something bad happening to one of them.”

Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley also was in the audience at Tuesday’s meeting. He said suspending the police department now would place a heavy burden on his deputies, who would have to take on added patrol duties.

“I understand the spot you’re in, but you’re also putting us in a spot because you’re going to put us down four officers as soon as you do this,” he told the council.

“I look at my people and it’s going to saddle them with a nightmare … so thank you.”

Mayor Ron Lundbom said city officials had done everything they could to persuade voters to support the levy and predicted many residents who voted against it or didn’t vote at all would be appalled at the sudden reduction of law enforcement services.

“I think they’ve got no one to blame but themselves,” he said.

Councilors Shannon Adair and Paul Smith said the city and county would now have to work together to find a way to provide adequate law enforcement resources for all of Grant County, including John Day.

Green said “conversations are progressing” toward a law enforcement services agreement with the county, but no deal has yet been reached. He said the city had offered to turn over its entire share of property tax revenues, around $300,000 a year, to the county.

“That’s more than enough to cover three of four officers,” Green said.

But County Commissioner Sam Palmer, sitting in the audience, responded that the county would have to shoulder other costs besides salary and benefits, such as training, vehicles, firearms and other equipment.

“It’s going to cost a lot more than $300,000 to take it over,” he said.

Asked by Lundbom for his solution to the problem, Palmer said the question has given him some sleepless nights.

“As elected officials, we’re all going to have to do our best to keep our officers safe and our people safe,” he said.

“I agree with Shannon and Paul: We’re going to have to work together.”

Suspending the Police Department was just one item on a busy City Council agenda at Tuesday’s meeting. In other business, the council voted to:

• Approve a land exchange agreement with the Culley family to allow construction of a trail between the Seventh Street Sports Complex and the new Hill Family Park.

• Sell four lots at the Airport Industrial Park for $112,000 to Burnt River Farms, a diversified cannabis company that also recently received Planning Commission approval to open a dispensary on South Canyon Boulevard.

• Renew the city’s franchise agreement with Clark’s Disposal for waste hauling and recycling services for the next 10 years. The new deal will run through May 23, 2031.

• Amend the financing agreement for the new water reclamation facility.

• Accept a $60,000 state grant to pay for planning and engineering for a project to build affordable housing using 3D-printed concrete construction. The cities of Burns and Lakeview, which have similar plans, joined John Day in the grant application. The city of John Day is partnering with Alquist 3D and ECONorthwest in the project. The first phase would involve the construction of 10 to 12 dwelling units in The Ridge development to provide affordable housing for disabled veterans and other disadvantaged groups.

• Accept a $1 million state grant to finance site improvements adjacent to the new Kam Wah Chung Interpretive Center, which the state plans to build on the site of Gleason Park and Gleason Pool. The state is in the process of purchasing the park land from the city.

The council also heard a presentation from Straw to Gold, a Portland firm that is developing a marketing campaign for the city. Principals Benjamin Ariff and Adam Mefford said they hope to have their new “Discover John Day” website up and running by March.

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