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Creeping costs shadow merger proposal

Technology upgrades and shift relief increase estimated bill


The Cornelius Police Department has hit the first major speed bump on its road to merging with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office: money.

“The numbers just keep creeping up and creeping up,” said Cornelius Police Chief Ken Summers. “Up for one thing, down for another. It’s extremely complicated.”

With final cost estimates still elusive but moving upward, Cornelius officials have rescheduled a merger-related Town Hall from July 29 to Aug. 19.

The most recent "cost creep" involves something called “shift relief,” which would ensure that regardless of vacation or sick time, there would always be at least two officers covering Cornelius.

Currently, vacation and sick leave pull officers away so often that there is usually only one Cornelius officer on duty, Summers said. The city can't afford to pull in another as backup.

“The ratio of activity-per-officer we have is the highest in the county. They are going from call to call and don’t have time for follow-ups,” he said.

But as part of the merger, the sheriff's office is offering to send in a deputy to fill that second-officer position whenever it's vacant.

"When we first heard of this, it was like, 'Wow. Let's talk,'" said Summers.

The problem is that the initial cost estimate for this arrangement turned out to be $120,000 too low. The two agencies will take a second look at the costs, Summers said, but even the current, higher number is still far below what it would cost Cornelius to provide the same coverage.

A technology upgrade would also hike up the merger's cost, said Summers, noting that the department's current phone system is extremely outdated.

“We have a stand-alone phone system. You can’t transfer calls out of the city,” said Summers, who estimates it would take $60,000 to update the department's phones and computers so they are compatible with the county.

Tech people from the sheriff’s office are visiting Cornelius to determine final numbers for such an upgrade this week.

On the savings side, the sheriff’s office is independently insured, which Summers predicted would save Cornelius $12,000 a year. With a larger number of clients, he added, workers’ compensation and other such costs might also be cheaper.

And gas costs would go down at least several cents per gallon, Summers estimated, because the sheriff’s office buys in bulk.

Still, the most recently discovered savings don't come close to balancing out the recently discovered costs.

The overall cost needs to be less than $1.9 million — the current cost to run the department — because Cornelius City Manager Rob Drake won’t allow the merger if it increases costs for citizens.

The first merger estimate pegged the cost at $1.4 million, but that number has since climbed closer to the limit Drake set.

“We knew there were gonna be ups and downs,” Summers said. “But right now we are in a down. It’s a hurdle, but we aren’t discouraged.”

Summers had a meeting with Undersheriff Jeff Mori last Thursday and will have another Friday, July 26. He hopes to have final cost information at least a week before the Aug. 19 Town Hall, so residents can review it before attending.

“We don’t want estimates,” said Summers. “We want to be able to answer every question people ask.”




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