Orting to hire new police officer despite uncertain funding plan

Some on council say staffing changes needed now while others call for more financial planning

Staff writerMay 19, 2014 

A split vote by the Orting City Council has led to expedited hiring within the city’s police department.

In an unexpected 4-3 vote last month, the council directed staff to fill a new police officer position and make a part-time detective full time as soon as the new job is filled. 

City Administrator Mark Bethune said the City Council originally approved an additional police position in 2008, but the recession kept staff from filling the job. 

Now, months after an unsolved homicide continues to rattle residents, the city is seeking to fill the position despite an unclear plan to pay for it.

Councilman Graham Hunt, who recommended funding the changes at a regular meeting April 30, said he is confident that the city will find money for the additional police staffing. He said increasing public safety resources now is a priority for residents.

“We have to be responsive,” Hunt said. “I’m not trying to add burden.”

Fellow councilman Ric Fritz agreed with the immediate hiring to ease concerns of the citizens and give the understaffed police department the help it needs. He added that he's confident the finances will work out.

Two incidents in the past several months have shaken the city of more than 6,700.

In October, two teens were arrested after the attack of Trailside Cyclery owner Brian Backus.

The 15- and 17-year-old boys spent time in juvenile detention after they were found guilty of second-degree assault.

Community fears heightened Feb. 19 when 53-year-old Michael Compton was fatally shot in his yard while interrupting a burglary in his garage. No arrests have been made in the case.

Others on the council − Council members Josh Penner, Guy Colorossi and Scott Drennen − opposed the immediate hiring, arguing that it is irresponsible to hire police officers before the city knows it can afford them.

Penner said that it is unclear if a new position would solve the primary issues within the department.

“We say we’re going to hire somebody to free up the detective, but do we know that’s going to happen?” he asked. “Bringing on more bodies doesn’t solve the efficiency issues.”

Penner added that he supports the intent of funding the police officer position, but said the issue shouldn’t be rushed.

“I feel like it’s the tail wagging the dog right now,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do today.”

Drennen agreed, stressing that it is important to plan long-term funding for the position. 

“We’re looking at the financial security of the city,” Drennen said. “This puts us in a position where we need to pass a tax burden onto our citizens with no choice.”

Mayor Joe Pestinger said he’s seen the police department’s needs first hand, and that “it doesn’t take much analyzing” to see that it is short staffed.

Bethune said the public safety committee will look at ways to pay for the new officer, but the city’s reserve fund will cover the cost if money isn’t secured elsewhere. 

It could be several months before the committee recommends a funding plan to the City Council, Bethune said, but the city is moving ahead with hiring.

Colorossi cautioned against rushing into hiring officers the city can’t afford. He said dipping into reserves is not the solution.

“We don’t have much (in reserves),” he said. “We’re cooking them down now.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682
Follow Kari on Twitter: @KariPlog

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