Police siren

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NORTH BEND — The City of North Bend’s current method of paying for police services is “unsustainable,” according to North Bend Police Chief Robert Kappelman.

“Right now through the contract with The Mill Casino, which we are contractually obligated to uphold, and through the use of contingency funds we are able to keep enough officers on to supply the city with 24 hours of coverage,” Kappelman said, but added that “Contingency funds should not normally be used for personnel and the city’s contingency funds are not a size that makes this a sustainable plan. We’re just trying to do the best we can with the budget we’re afforded.”

Addressing the issue of police coverage

Kappelman told The World that as of Monday, the department has 18 sworn officers on staff even after budget cuts, including himself and the two School Resource Officers paid for by the North Bend School District. However, only 13 officers are on patrol.

“I could cover 24-hours with five people, but whether it’s safe or advisable is a completely different story," he said.

Having an officer always on-call qualifies North Bend for mutual aid, or support from neighboring law enforcement agencies. Without having an officer on-call, such as the previously anticipated 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. police service gap, the city couldn’t ask for help from neighboring agencies except the Coos County Sheriff’s Office which has 13 deputies on patrol.

When asked about the benefit of mutual aid, Kappelman argued that “mutual aid is great if someone is available … When an officer works alone, they’re not safe.”

Kappelman stated that due to the reduced staffing levels, the department will handle “certain calls a different way than before.”

“… A low-level theft may be handled through a citizens' self-report form,” he said as an example. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t handling the case or don’t document the case or input the case into our system, it just means (citizens) may talk to an officer or a staff member over the phone rather than have an officer report to the scene.”

When asked about other small crimes, such as trespassing, he said it is more difficult.

“… If someone is in danger, if there is potential of another crime aside from the trespass itself, we’re going to always err on sending someone but have to remember that we’re still low staffed and there may be a delay in responding because we’re inundated with calls,” he said.

Kappelman said the call volume seen by the department in 2019 totaled 23,110 calls for service.

“We always are committed to (the public’s) safety,” he said. “Each one of us, individually and collectively, and we’re trying to do the best we can with the budget afforded to the police department.”

Public Safety Fee

The topic of how to fund police services in North Bend has been an ongoing tug-of-war between the residents and its City Council, having begun in 2018 when voters said “no” to an increase to its public safety fee.

The fee started out at $5 per month on residents' water bills, then raised to $15. The public voted down a second increase, which would have made the fee $25 a month. The City Council later decided to make the fee $30, which voters reduced in May back down to $15, cutting the Public Safety budget by $785,000.

Recently the council approved the 2020-2021 budget, which, to make up for the shortfall, included cutting five officers and dissolving two officer positions from the NBPD. It was written into the May ballot measure and discussed during City Council meetings that the reduction would lead to no police coverage from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. starting June 30.

However, the city announced last week in a press release that it would continue 24-hour police coverage by dipping into its contingency funds. It also highlighted an uncertain financial future.

“It was clear going into the new fiscal year that the current levels of staffing were not sustainable due to the results of ballot measure 6-177,” the release said. “It was also clear that there were uncertainties in future funding created by

  • The Coquille Tribe’s desire to renegotiate its contract with the City for the provision of public safety services due to the COVID-19 restrictions causing loss of revenue at the casino.
  • The Expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement with the Police Teamsters Union on June 30, 2020.
  • The inability of property taxes to fund public safety.”

Ongoing lawsuit

The press release also pointed to an ongoing lawsuit against the city which is challenging the legality of the public safety fee being placed on residents' monthly water bills.

“Plaintiffs are low-income North Bend residents and subscribers of water and sewer services provided by the Water Board,” read the lawsuit’s initial complaint. “All plaintiffs are residents of Coos County, where the controversy arose. They live near or below the federal poverty guidelines. Plaintiffs have all paid the Public Safety Fee and continue to pay the Public Safety Fee for fear of losing water and sewer services to their homes.”

The complaint stated that the plaintiffs declared that the city should not be able to impose or spend Public Safety Fee money for uses not related to water or sewer services. The lawsuit seeks relief in the form of “an accounting by a court-appointed auditor to determine the amount of the unauthorized collection; an injunction to halt the collection of the Public Safety Fee; creation of a constructive trust to hold all monies unlawfully collected; granting restitution to plaintiffs and those similarly situated; and granting attorneys fees under the Common Fund Doctrine.”

It added that ”In the alternative, plaintiffs request the Court to find that (the city) have been unjustly enriched by collecting the Public Safety Fee in contravention of the North Bend City Charter and should be so ordered to return such money.”

In an amended complaint, the amount of restitution was estimated around $192,500. Though it allowed that a “higher number may be determined in the course of discovery, depending on accounting ….”

Meaning, if the city loses the lawsuit it would be required to pay back even the voted on $15 residents are currently paying for the Public Safety Fee.

The lawsuit is set to go to trial in September.

Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 236, or by email at worldnews1@countrymedia.net. Follow her on Twitter: @je_wardwriter.

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