Council remains suspicious of police boat grant

Acceptance will be conditioned on the feds not requiring manpower, patrols.

The City Council shook the package hard and inspected the bow for hidden strings. They questioned the giver’s intentions, demanded more details and ultimately put strict conditions on tearing back the gift wrap.

But Bainbridge Police may yet receive council permission to accept a $640,000 U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant to buy a state-of-the-art patrol boat. On one condition: Bainbridge Police must go back to the feds and make sure the boat doesn’t require more staff for terrorism-related patrols.

“This is not a grant for a boat,” said Councilman Bob Scales, in a budget workshop Monday at which the grant was debated. “This is a grant for marine patrol enhancement. We’re not a port, so why are they giving it to us? It’s because they want us to take on additional duties to patrol federally regulated areas and to protect the ferries.”

Most councilors doubted Bainbridge Police would be able to meet Homeland Security’s expectations without additional funds or staffing.

In its award to Bainbridge Police, the federal department states that the funds are “intended to create a sustainable, risk-based effort for the protection of critical port infrastructures from terrorism, especially explosives and non-conventional threats what would cause major disruption to commerce and significant loss of life.”

That’s a tall order for a police force that some councilors would like to have focus on more routine calls.

“There may be an attack by terrorists on a boat,” Scales said. “But I know every day there’s drunk drivers, domestic violence, drugs in our schools.”

In its grant application, Bainbridge Police mentioned “vulnerabilities of the ferry system.” Police also said the boat would help them reach goals of performing “homeland security missions” and to “surveil and interdict terrorist actors.”

Half the grant would purchase a 33-foot, twin-engine vessel similar to the ones used by the U.S. Coast Guard to escort state ferries. The boat would have a larger capacity for carrying injured people than the department’s current 24-foot vessel.

The remaining portion of the grant would buy navigation, communication, infra-red optical equipment and other supplies. Police say the new boat would come with a higher fuel cost but would require fewer repairs and service checks.

But Councilwoman Debbie Vancil doubted Bainbridge police could cover the costs linked to additional duties.

“This is patrols 24/7,” Vancil said. “This is not waiting for the phone to ring. It’s a huge responsibility. Are we financially capable of fulfilling this responsibility?”

Councilman Bill Knobloch, speaking as a retired U.S. Navy officer, said Bainbridge Police could not perform a wide range of water surveillance duties without more staff.

“We’re talking about a whole new ballgame,” he said. “I speak from experience. I used to do (surveillance). The Bainbridge police cannot meet that. Are you telling this council and this community, if we vote for this boat, that you will never come back for extra money to support this?”

Police Chief Matt Haney responded with an emphatic “correct.” But Scales said Haney might take police off the streets and put them on boats to meet the grant’s obligations.

“I totally believe the chief,” he said. “But then he’ll ask for a new school resource officer, a traffic enforcement officer or a detective. You’re asking us to backfill, essentially.”

Haney stressed that land-based service will not suffer.

“I believe we won’t be shorting island residents,” he said, adding that some on-board staffing can be filled by police volunteers.

Councilwoman Christine Rolfes asked the council to put more trust in Haney and his staff.

“If the chief tells us there are no strings attached, I have a hard time understanding why we’re micromanaging and picking at him,” she said.

Rolfes also said there exists a real terror threat to the island’s ferry run. “What a great target this would be,” she said. “It’s important to keep our shores safe, the same as on land.

“If the federal government offers to give this to us, I say we should say ‘thank you very much’ and move on.”

The council agreed to accept the grant on the condition that the federal government put in writing that the new boat will come with no requirements for additional staffing. Haney expressed doubts that the federal government will agree to the council’s conditions but pledged to move fast in an effort to meet the grant’s mid-November acceptance deadline.

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