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Citizens back grant for new police boat

The council is concerned that the federal money comes with strings attached.

Refusing the slickest speed boat in the county doesn’t mean Bainbridge police can sit out an S.O.S.

It only means police will respond slower, with less capability, capacity and at a higher cost to taxpayers.

Residents and emergency responders sent that message to the City Council Wednesday, urging approval of a federally sponsored grant for the purchase of a state-of-the-art police vessel.

“By not accepting this grant, it doesn’t excuse our responsibilities as first-responders,” said Jim Serrill, an island-based maritime security consultant who has helped various agencies obtain federal grants.

If a ferry catches fire halfway across Puget Sound or a boater tips into the drink near Blake Island, Bainbridge police are currently still obliged to respond when called. The difference is, Serrill said, local police will be better equipped to respond.

“With the boat’s infrared, you’ll be able to see a person in the water from a half-mile away,” he said. “That’s 48-degree water, where survival is measured in minutes. I’d rather our police respond than wait an hour for the Coast Guard.”

Councilors had earlier balked when news of the $640,000 grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, crossed their desks.

While acknowledging that the hefty handout may substantially upgrade the department’s five-year old boat, councilors questioned whether the feds expected services in return. They also surmised that other area agencies may frequently request the vessel’s assistance, stretching Bainbridge police funds and staff thin.

About half the grant money would allow Bainbridge police 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 an improvement over the department’s current 24-foot vessel, which can hold up to eight people, police said.

While other regional law enforcement and emergency response agencies are likely to call on the boat and its crew for aid, city Harbor Commission member Bob Selzler stressed that the generosity is not one-sided.

“Before (Bainbridge police) had a drug dog, other communities gladly responded,” he said. “And when there’s a pipe-bomb (emergency), the Bremerton Police Department and the State Patrol” stand ready to lend a hand.

The new boat would also serve a vital role in natural disasters, said Bainbridge Island Fire Chief Jim Walkowski.

“Bainbridge Island is reliant on the bridge and the ferry,” he said, warning of the crippling effects an earthquake could have on these amenities. “We’ll be reliant on our marine assets (during a severe disaster). This vessel assists in that level of service. It would be a great opportunity for our community.”

Resident Kevin Dwyer said a crippling winter storm a few years ago should be a warning that “anything we can do to protect ourselves is wise.”

Not everyone spoke in favor of the vessel. Resident Doug Hatfield said the grant is not “free” and ultimately spends a great deal of taxpayer money.

“Everybody says it’s free money, but the bottom line is, it is not,” he said.

Police staff are crafting a detailed funding proposal to help support the vessel’s operation costs. The Department of Homeland Security requires City Council approval of the grant by mid-November, police said.

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