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Rough waters for police boat grant

Council members are wary of a $600K federal award to pay for a larger vessel.

When do you look a gift horse in the mouth? When it trots out of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s stable.

Despite a tempting $640,000 handout for a top-of-the-line police patrol boat, the City Council balked Wednesday, asking to see the fine print on a deal they fear could lead to unwanted obligations.

“What’s not absolutely clear are the long-term implications,” said Councilman Bob Scales. “I don’t know any federal grants without strings.”

About half the grant would allow the Bainbridge Police Department to purchase a 33-foot, twin-engine vessel similar to the ones used by the U.S. Coast Guard to escort state ferries. With a hinged bow, the new boat could load injured people from the front and carry up to 18 passengers.

The remaining portion of the grant would buy navigation, communication, infra-red optical equipment and other supplies. The vessel would be a substantial improvement over the department’s current 24-foot vessel, which can hold up to eight people.

Councilman Nezam Tooloee questioned Homeland Security’s motivation for significantly upgrading a small town’s police boat. “Why Bainbridge Island?” he asked. “Is there a threat?”

Haney declined to go into specifics, but answered “yes.”

Bainbridge police are one of only four recipients in Washington to earn a Port Security Grant from the the federal government. Over $141 million has been granted to municipal governments, state law enforcement agencies and private companies across the country.

Haney said the grant towers above any other federal offering he has seen.

“The beauty is that there is no matching funds,” he said. “It’s a rare opportunity to improve our ability to respond to emergencies with no cost to us.”

But some council members expressed concerns that the substantial upgrade may mean additional responsibilities and costs for the Bainbridge police.

“I’ve never seen the city get a grant like that,” said Councilman Bill Knobloch said. “Are (police) ready to assume the added responsibility?”

Mutual aid agreements with other law enforcement and rescue agencies could mean frequent duty in other jurisdictions, some council members said.

“My main concern is the ongoing costs and responsibilities (Bainbridge police) will take on,” Scales said. “The city is not a regional service provider. That’s the county’s job. The more the city is willing to take on, the more other jurisdictions will drop back.”

Tooloee agreed that Bainbridge shouldn’t take on an undue financial burden helping other areas.

“Just because we have this toy, let’s not bear all the costs,” he said.

Haney said Bainbridge police regularly respond to water emergencies in other areas, including Poulsbo and Suquamish. Bainbridge police were the first to respond to a medical helicopter crash near Edmonds last month and directed the Coast Guard to the site.

Responding to emergencies beyond the island’s four-mile radius is rare, but Haney said his department stands ready to help other jurisdictions when needed.

“We cover each other all the time,” he said. “Mutual aid agreements help everyone, including Bainbridge.”

Until Bainbridge police initiated its own K-9 unit this year, other cities supplied drug-sniffing dogs at no cost to the island.

“We did that for many, many years and it never cost us a dime,” he said.

The county bomb unit and regional accident investigation team also make regular visits to Bainbridge, he said.

Besides a slightly larger fuel bill, Haney said the new boat will likely not effect the department’s bottom line. He also said the boat will require less service, perhaps every 250 hours compared to the current boat’s 100.

Councilwoman Deborah Vann wasn’t so sure.

“The next step will be that (police) will say they are going to need more support,” possibly in staffing for the boat and services to other jurisdictions, she said.

The council asked Haney to provide more details on the grant application package, commitments to other agencies and projected costs. The Department of Homeland Security requires local approval of the grant by mid-November.

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