Weston to lose last police officer

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WESTON — Many small towns in Umatilla County struggle with maintaining adequate law enforcement services. Some rely on the county sheriff’s office, but that can mean residents wait an hour or more for a response after calling dispatch.

Others, like Weston, have funded their own police departments, opting to pay a bit more in staffing costs to give residents more prompt service.

But Weston’s in-house department may be coming to an end. The city’s only police officer, Sgt. Joshua Henningsen, has submitted a letter of resignation, leaving the future of the city’s law enforcement uncertain.

Council members held a special work session last week to discuss options for the city, including hiring new officers, contracting with Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office for services, or contracting with the neighboring cities of Athena or Milton-Freewater.

The city has generally had two officers, but has been getting by with one since Officer John Thorndike left the department in August for a position in North Dakota. Having only one officer means a lot of overtime and time away from family for that individual.

“It’s very, very expensive for a town of 675 people to fund the police department for two full-time officers but it’s impossible to get by with one,” said Mayor Duane Thul, explaining the dilemma many small towns face.

The city’s most recent audit report for the 2011-12 year show a total of $216,467 spent on the police department, with $148,767 going to payroll expenses and benefits for two officers. The adopted budget for 2013-14 included $244,500 for the department, of which $153,500 was for payroll and benefits.

Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan said that whether Weston contracts with his office or not, the sheriff’s office is still ultimately responsible for law enforcement within the county. The incorporated cities of Ukiah, Helix and Adams, each of which has only a few hundred people, rely on the county for law enforcement services but have no contract.

Rowan said he couldn’t provide an estimated cost for a contract with Weston, as it would depend on the level of coverage the city needed and their call volume.

“There’s probably a way that we could put something together that would be cost-effective for them and a benefit to the sheriff’s office,” he said.

John Shafer, Athena’s mayor, said he hadn’t yet discussed the possibility of a contract with his Council or city staff because Weston is still discussing options. Athena’s population of roughly 1,140 people is currently supported by a staff of two police officers, though Shafer said a contract with Weston would necessitate hiring additional staff.

Thul said no decisions have been made and the Council will continue to discuss options.

The Council is to take action on Henningsen’s resignation letter at its Wednesday meeting, and continue to discuss options for the police department at that time. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at Weston-Athena Memorial Hall in Weston.

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

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