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Banks votes again on safety levy

Election -- Voters asked to raise taxes to pay for police patrols inside city limits
by: Chase Allgood,

It hasn't turned into the lawless Wild West, but some Banks residents say that since losing local police protection in June, the city has seen burglars, vandals and petty thieves emboldened by the lack of cops patrolling the streets.

'There's definitely been a lot more crime in the area,' said Mark Ward, whose grocery store, Jim's Thriftway, was burglarized shortly after the city ended its local law enforcement contract with the Washington County Sheriff's Office more than four months ago. 'I've heard of at least ten businesses being broken into.'

Currently, Banks is covered by the county's rural police services, which, in practices, means deputies deal only with potentially serious crimes inside the city limits, said Teri Branstitre, Banks city councilor and police commissioner. 'The only thing the county responds to is life-threatening situations.'

To restore a full level of law enforcement - including traffic patrol, youth programs and crime prevention - the Banks City Council voted last month to put a public safety local option levy on the November ballot.

If it passes, the levy would raise property taxes by $1.89 per $1,000 of assessed home value. On a $200,000 house, that adds up to $378 annually.

Starting in 2007, the five-year levy would raise $766,000 for police services provided by the county. Though Branstitre hopes voters approve the measure, her optimism is tempered by history.

'I don't know what the right answer is to get this levy to pass,' said Branstitre, who is running unopposed for mayor this year.

The last time Banks citizens agreed to fund police services was in 1998, when they passed a levy of $1.80 per $1,000 of assessed value to pay for a police chief and two officers.

Voters failed to renew funding for the city police department five times, either because they rejected the measures or didn't show up in numbers large enough to pass them under the state's double-majority law, which requires that at least half of registered voters cast their ballots to approve any tax measure in an election that doesn't fall in November of an even-numbered year.

Banks residents who refused to fund the police department listed a variety of reasons for doing so, Branstitre said. Some felt they couldn't afford it, others thought they didn't need it, and others had personal grievances with the department, 'It depends on who you talk to,' she said.

When the original law enforcement levy expired at the end of 2004, Banks was able to use leftover money from the police fund and the operating contingency of their general fund to pay the county for 50 hours of local police protection a week.

The solution was meant to be temporary from the outset, said Branstitre. 'We knew at some point we wouldn't be able to draw on that any more.'

Since funding for the contract ended in June, the lack of police presence has been felt at Banks High School, which now hires officers to monitor home football games, said Jim Foster, the school's principal. 'Anything we do with the police, the school has to pay for.'

In addition to relatively minor problems such as graffiti and fighting, Banks High School has suffered two break-ins over the summer, resulting in about $7,500 in stolen computers and other equipment.

Though the school does have alarms, Foster said there was no response from police.

'I would hope people would take a good look at what's happening in their community and do whatever is necessary to protect their fellow citizens,' Foster said.

Not everyone recently affected by crime is rooting for the levy to pass, however.

Gaylon Renick, owner of the Banks Billiards tavern, said he will vote against the measure despite the fact his business lost in excess of $10,000 due to an August burglary. Renick said he called the police five times and they never responded to the break-in, which leaves him wondering where his tax dollars go.

'I pay a lot of property taxes for basically nothing,' he said, adding that skepticism in Banks about how government manages money extends to the city council as well as the county. 'People around here don't have a lot of confidence in the administration of the city.'

Sgt. Dave Thompson, public information officer for sheriff's office, said the county doesn't ignore criminal activity in Banks but has no choice but to focus its energy on more dangerous crime.

If someone is ramming a car into a building or intimidating people with a gun, deputies will rush to the scene regardless of police service contracts, but the sheriff's office simply doesn't have the financial flexibility to investigate car burglaries or vandalism, he explained.

'They go by dispatch prioritization of calls.'

Thompson concedes, however, that small cities like Banks are in a tough spot.

Larger cities in the county typically have their own police departments and highly populated unincorporated areas, such as Aloha, are part of the Enhanced Sheriff's Patrol District. Thompson said such ESPDs have a police presence of 1.06 deputies per 1,000 people. Outside the ESPD, the ratio is half of that figure.

Towns in the rural areas of county with smaller tax bases have an important decision to make: spend a large portion of their city budget on police, or go with limited protection.

'If a city didn't have a police departent and it's not in the ESPD, then it's in the same dilemma Banks has,' Thompson said, noting that the sheriff's office relies on its general fund for rural services. 'We have very limited resources in the west end of the county.'