Councilman wants changes to police, public works in new budget plan

The answer to getting more money for Bainbridge Island roads may just lie in the police department’s parking lot.

Or, more accurately, in the driveways of police officers.

As work continues on the city’s biennial budget, Councilman Steve Bonkowski has suggested eliminating the police department’s take-home vehicle program as a way to free up funds for road projects.

City staff is vetting Bonkowski’s idea and others from the first-term councilman — the effects of which may ripple not only through the police department, but also public works.

The city’s 2013-2014 budget builds off the 2012 budget and totals for $51.3 million in 2013, and $50.6 million in 2014.

Staff salaries and benefits continue to be the city’s largest expense, and city officials have proposed cutting staff by 3.5 full-time equivalent positions.

The city will hold a public hearing for the budget at the city council’s next meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 7.

But the amendments to the budget that Bonkowski is proposing would require considerable policy changes, particularly with the police department and public works. He estimates that his changes would free up nearly $470,000 in 2013, and $1.3 million in 2014, to spend on island roads and economic development in the city.

Over the next two years, $600,000 has been allotted for annual road work programs. Bonkowski said he wants more for the island’s ailing roads.

“I’m proposing to develop funding alternatives so the city can maintain its roads now and into the future without substantially new revenue sources from the city’s residents,” Bonkowski said.

Initially, he urged the council to instruct Interim City Manager Morgan Smith to find alterations to the budget and provide $2 million to roads preservation and maintenance.

“The city staff said that the roads program (needs) in the realm of $2 million a year,” Bonkowski said. “We are woefully short of meeting that goal.”

Bonkowski was shot down by his fellow council members, however. The consensus was that he could not make such a broad, generalized request of city staff. Rather, it was preferred that he work through the budget and find amendments himself that would achieve his financial targets.

Bonkowski did just that. One week later, he returned with an array of amendments to the proposed budget.

Some savings were found by using money from the $2 million Washington State Ferries settlement to pay for a $14,000 waterfront stairs project at Waterfront Park.

He also recommended that $300,000 that was budgeted for handling lawsuits be shifted toward road projects.

Both ideas received a favorable nod from fellow council members.

Other ideas were greeted with more skepticism, however.

Another amendment would maintain the public works fleet at its 2012 levels, rather than increase levels as the budget is currently proposing. Bonkowski estimated the freeze would save $154,000 in 2013, and $162,000 in 2014.

The most impacting change would be to abolish the take-home vehicle program at the city’s police department. Currently, officers are assigned a car where they keep their necessary equipment. Officers take the car home and drive it to work, in uniform.

The move would eliminate the need to purchase two cars in 2013, and two more in 2014, according to Bonkowski. He estimates that it could provide $352,000 in savings in 2013, and $256,000 in 2014.

“If you eliminate the take-home cars, you don’t need 26 cars,” Bonkowski said. “I conservatively said we could at least get 10 cars out (of use).”

The question of eliminating the police department’s take home vehicle program has been addressed before but did not gain traction.

In an earlier analysis, officials said the city lacked facilities — such as a locker room and adequate space to store weapons — that would allow an officer to come to work, change into uniform and pick up their vehicle and weapon. The added time for officers suiting up would also mean an increase in overtime pay.

Councilwoman Debbi Lester raised the issue during the 2010 budget discussions.

Back then, officials said the vehicle take-home program was more cost effective for the city. The city also noted that a majority of officers were living off-island and the travel time to get to an emergency on Bainbridge would increase if police would have travel to the station first to get ready.

If the city maintained a pool of cars, officers would have to check them out and supply them before each shift, at an estimated time of 25 minutes. Officers would also have to remove their items after each shift, at an estimated time of 15 minutes.

City officials have now estimated that doing away with the take-home vehicle program would add $100,000 in costs related to officers getting ready for work at the station.

The issue would also need to be agreed to by the city’s police union, as the policy is currently part of the bargaining unit’s contract with Bainbridge.

The department also doesn’t have a locker room or an armory, which presents another issue. Officers currently show up to work in uniform with their vehicles stocked and ready to go. Officials said earlier the changeover would require a remodel of the police station, which would cost between $50,000 to $100,000.

Bonkowski said, however, that the lack of a locker room is only a problem because the city does not allow officers to come to work in uniform. He said that the council could change that policy.

But it is not only roads that Bonkowski is focused on.

“One of the things a lot of the businesses talk about is that we don’t have good cell phone coverage, we don’t have good Internet other than cable,” he said. “I think the city needs to take a leadership role in doing that.”

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