DESERT AIRE — The Grant County Sheriff’s Office has secured a security contract with Desert Aire and will begin stationing a full-time deputy solely within the borders of the rural village, following years of complaints from residents about lackluster response times in one of the county’s most remote areas.
A record request from an anonymous resident yielded hundreds of pages of emails from the Sheriff’s Office related to the security contract which show that the agreement comes with a price tag for the county and was negotiated amidst a contentious relationship between the law enforcement agency and Desert Aire’s current security company, IFP. The Sheriff’s Office has not yet signed the contract.
Cost of Service
The county will absorb somewhere between less than a tenth to more than a third of the cost of the contract, though the exact figure has been reported differently by Sheriff Tom Jones and Pam Thorsen, the chairperson of the Desert Aire Safety and Security Committee and a local representative for the contract negotiation. A November 2018 proposal sent from the GCSO to Desert Aire’s Security and Safety Committee indicated the Sheriff’s Office would provide a vehicle, equipment for the deputy and the vehicle, training and miscellaneous items and stated “these are initial startup costs expected to exceed $60,000.”
Those services would be provided free of charge to Desert Aire and would be borne by county taxpayers. The proposal indicates the Sheriff’s Office would also absorb the costs of overtime, ongoing costs for training and replacing equipment, and to send a representative to Desert Aire board meetings.
According to Jones, the $60,000 figure is an approximation of the value, not the cost, of what the Sheriff’s Office would be providing gratis. In an interview at the beginning of May, Jones said the vehicle provided for the contract had already been purchased at a steep discount for around $10,000 and equipment for the deputy was similarly already in the Sheriff’s Office’s possession. Normally, the cost to purchase a new car and outfit it and a new deputy is between $55,000 and $60,000, Jones said. Unenumerated costs, including for the deputy’s overtime and equipment maintenance, would be “minimal,” Jones said.
In a May 2019 meeting of the Desert Aire Homeowners Association, Thorsen said that the Sheriff’s Office would be absorbing $55,000 worth of costs per year, or more than a third of the contract’s total costs, totaling $110,000 over the two-year life of the contract. Jones did not respond to requests from the Columbia Basin Herald for clarification on this discrepancy.
“It isn’t about the Sheriff’s Office or the county, it’s about the citizens that we protect and serve,” Jones said in an interview earlier in the month. “Now they get a dedicated deputy in Desert Aire on top of all the resources we already provide.”
Despite the reported over $100,000 in taxpayer funds for the primary benefit of Desert Aire, the Sheriff’s Office has stated in other circumstances that the agency is cash-strapped. In an April meeting of the Mattawa City Council, Police Chief Joe Harris stated that a months-long arrangement with the Sheriff’s Office to support Mattawa’s short-staffed police department had been abruptly ended after the Sheriff’s Office said it lacked the resources to continue. The contract with Desert Aire is not the first of its kind in Grant County — the Sheriff’s Office has had a similar contract with Coulee City for six years, Jones said, and has previously floated a similar proposal to the Port of Moses Lake.
In the draft proposal, Desert Aire would pay $117,480 in salary and benefits for fiscal year 2019, increasing to $120,288 in 2020. Those initial figures were erroneously calculated, Jones said, and the final figure was reappraised at $106,298 per year. Though Jones had originally factored yearly raises into his draft proposal, the final contract does not include a raise in its second year, Thorsen said at a May Desert Aire board meeting. Those raises are negotiated with the Grant County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and will likely also be absorbed by the Sheriff’s Office, though Jones did not clarify before press time.
In the November 2018 draft proposal, Jones had also requested a minimum of a three-year contract with Desert Aire to help ameliorate the costs of hiring a new deputy.
“It would be difficult to go through an extensive and expensive hiring process to bring someone on without some guarantee that this employment would continue for some time,” Jones wrote in the draft proposal.
However, the initial requests for proposals sent out by Desert Aire specified the contract would only be for one year. By April, Jones was able to secure a two-year agreement, still shy of his previously stated minimum.
The agreement had clear benefits to Desert Aire, in part due to the price, said Desert Aire Homeowners Association board member Joel Dugan, and in part because the Sheriff’s Office has the authority to arrest in ways that IFP or other private security firms do not. Additionally, the rural village’s liability insurance would have increased significantly if Desert Aire had contracted a private security company, Dugan said.
Desert Aire’s new deputy will be available to respond to emergencies in the surrounding area, said Sgt. Dean Hallatt of the Sheriff’s Office, which will theoretically improve response times for the entire south county area. However, paying for that support will also fall on the county, as any time spent outside of Desert Aire would not count against the hours the rural village pays for, Dugan said.
Feud with IFP
As a remote area of one of the largest counties in Washington, particularly one at the opposite end of the county from the Ephrata headquarters of the sheriff’s office, Desert Aire has long dealt with slower response times from the sheriff’s office. This lapse in service helped at least in part to spur Desert Aire to contract with IFP in the first place, said IFP owner and president Daniel Couture in an interview.
IFP was only one among a number of private security firms that sent contract proposals to Desert Aire. Each shared some operational disadvantages, including being unable to make arrests and causing the cost of liability insurance to increase, that convinced Desert Aire to contract with a law enforcement agency, Dugan said.
To counteract some of these shortfalls, IFP had discussed with board members of Desert Aire the possibility of creating a police department through the taxing authority of an airport district that surrounds the rural village.
Separately, Thorsen reached out to the sheriff’s office as early as September 2018 to inquire “how we can all work together to improve law enforcement protection in Desert Aire.” A month later, Jones held a town hall in the rural village to discuss new “mandates” he was issuing in order to improve service in the area, according to IFP employee Ray Appling and a number of members of the Desert Aire community.
In an Oct. 18 email from Appling to members of the Desert Aire HOA, Appling noted that lapses in coverage were continuing. A link to that letter is available at the end of this article.
“As you can see, the ‘mandates’ we have been told have been made in the last couple weeks are not being upheld by the road deputies and their sergeants,” Appling wrote.
Thorsen forwarded the email on to the sheriff’s office. In an Oct. 24 email to Thorsen, Jones called Appling’s claims “untruthful and misguided.”
“I want you and the committee to know that I am officially DONE with IPF (sic) and the employees of it,” Jones wrote.
However, in a later directive to all employees of the sheriff’s office, Jones acknowledged that at least some of the concerns raised by Appling had merit. A link to that directive is also available at the end of this article.
“If you are assigned south patrol, please go and stay south,” Jones wrote. “Supervisors have been asked to make every effort to eliminate the need for you to leave your zone prior to the end of your daily tour.”
Though it may not have been entirely “untruthful,” Jones said that it was unacceptable for IFP to use information gleaned from deputies against them and “this office to deface our efforts in south county.”
“Can anybody say that there’s not a deputy in south county all the time? Sure,” Jones said. “But he used this conversation and wrote this letter to the homeowners association in an attempt to make the Sheriff’s Office look bad and, I believe, maintain financial whatever for the security company.”
In the same directive, Jones told his staff that they were no longer to pass on information of a law enforcement nature to IFP or its associates.
“If they are not directly involved with a call for service, you will not disseminate information to them or supply them with operational information,” Jones wrote. “Also, if you are on a call for service and they arrive but are not directly related to the investigation, you will ask them to clear the scene.”
According to Appling, this directly affected his ability to provide security services to Desert Aire and put both himself and the Sheriff’s Office’s employees at increased risk.
“Over the years that I’ve been there, I have been asked by deputies, ‘back me up,” Appling said. “Now, they’re going to tell me to leave. Now, if things go sideways, they don’t have that resource to help them. That puts lives in danger.”
In an interview, Jones initially denied that the directive would to any extent decrease the level of cooperation with IFP or impede the ability of the security company to perform its services, but later said that to what extent it might, the blame falls on IFP.
“In perspective, if you had information like this that conversations were being used against your office and your employees — I made the decision to stop all contact,” Jones said. “Cooperation has to go both ways. This letter goes to show that their intentions are no good.”
Appling’s letter and sheriff’s response:
Sheriff’s office’s initial proposal: