Orting vote to hire officer has some wary of fiscal effect

kari.plog@thenewstribune.comJune 2, 2014 

Orting is planning how to pay for changes to police staffing while facing an understaffed department, divisive citizen patrols and recent violent crimes that have left the community fearful.

A split vote by the Orting City Council prompted the effort to hire a new full-time police officer, and some council members opposed filling the position before costs were covered.

City Administrator Mark Bethune said last week that the money for the new position is available. The city also would take the opportunity to make a part-time detective full time.

The challenge, he said, is finding a sustainable financial plan to ensure the increased staffing lasts over the long term.

The city has nine full-time officers.

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

Two incidents in the past several months shook up residents in this East Pierce city of 6,700 people and prompted the city to revisit the issue.

In October, two teens were arrested after attacking a local bike shop owner. 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.

The attacks led to citizen patrols by Compton’s Crew, a crime-prevention group formed in memory of the slain resident.

That effort has caused escalating tensions between residents who say the group unfairly targets teens and organizers who say they are protecting their neighbors from “rats” who are “poisoning” the town.

In an unexpected 4-3 vote last month, the City Council directed staff to hire the new officer immediately while the public safety committee sought a plan to pay for the position.

Bethune said Orting’s general fund — about $2.9 million — is the smallest in the state for cities the same size. He said that makes council members very cautious about changing anything in the budget.

“We are a bedroom community with a small retail base,” Bethune said. “We’ve got to try to make that nickel stretch further.”

Mayor Joe Pestinger agreed, saying the council has worked hard to balance the budget, planning for a surplus of just $100 this year.

“That doesn’t go very far,” he said last week.

Bethune said the city’s $1.8 million reserve fund could pay for the staffing changes if money isn’t secured elsewhere, such as through tax increases or changes in utility tax rates.

Specific plans have yet to be identified, and details will be worked out in the next several months.

Pestinger said he understands the council’s caution but that he thinks the staffing changes are overdue.

“We think it’s the right thing at the right time,” he said, adding that the department will use the increased staffing as an opportunity to improve operations and evaluate shifts for officers.

Councilman Graham Hunt recommended funding increased police staffing at a regular meeting April 30.

He was confident that the city would find money to cover the costs, and stressed that increased public safety resources is a priority for residents.

“We have to be responsive,” Hunt said at the time.

Fellow councilman Ric Fritz agreed with the hiring. Others on the council Josh Penner, Guy Colorossi and Scott Drennen opposed it, arguing it’s irresponsible to hire a police officer before staff knows the city can afford it.

“I feel like it’s the tail wagging the dog right now,” Penner said at the meeting.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682 kari.plog@thenewstribune.com @KariPlog

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