The Blaine County commissioners began pouring over a revised fiscal 2020 law-enforcement contract with Ketchum on Tuesday, and already agreed to one of the city’s asks: a $134,000 refund of unspent money from the last fiscal year.

Their decision continues the status quo for the county, which has repaid Ketchum surplus funds beyond a $100,000 trust account it keeps to hedge liability over the decade-long life of the deal. This time, though, the board unanimously voted to refund the money earlier than usual, despite misgivings from staff and the Sheriff’s Office about the sufficiency of the $100,000 figure to cover risk and the city’s ability to buy equipment for the Ketchum division.

While the total cost may change based on county budget decisions, Ketchum will likely pay the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office around $1.53 million in the upcoming fiscal year to police the town.

The contract doesn’t require the commissioners to give Ketchum back the full amount—or, any money at all. Recently, as Ketchum’s budget tightened, that uncertainty has strained relationships between the two parties—first under former Mayor Nina Jonas and now under Mayor Neil Bradshaw.

Failed talks to consolidate Ketchum and Sun Valley’s emergency services—a move that would require the Sheriff’s Office to terminate its Ketchum staff—haven’t helped.

“We’re in a low-trust environment,” County Administrator Derek Voss put it this week.

With the city’s finances in flux, Tues-day’s meeting had a few tense moments—and mounting desperation from Bradshaw as he convinced the county to release the money as soon as possible.

“We would expect our 2018 payment almost immediately,” Bradshaw told the commissioners. “We have budget issues. If we could get our little payment at the $134,000 number, that would be good.”  

As it turned out, the refund was never really in question; the commissioners unanimously approved a motion to cut the check. The preliminary terms of the forthcoming contract, which Bradshaw, Voss and Chief Deputy Will Fruehling had already discussed, were basically agreeable, too. The fee, which is about $90,000 less than this year, would buy Ketchum a chief, 10 deputies and an office administrator—one fewer than currently on budget.

Voss also included new terms to cover the county in case Ketchum does decide to end the contract during fiscal 2020. The city would cover the roughly $75,000 in costs associated with the sheriff’s closing accounts with his Ketchum staff and guarantee that if the city hired them afterward they would enter a new department with accrued experience.

If Ketchum were to leave right now, though, the county would be on the hook for those costs, worth three-quarters of its total allocation for liability remaining in the trust account, according to County Clerk JoLynn Drage.

“It does not make me feel comfortable, but it’s your choice,” she told the board.

Following conversations with the city, the commissioners were comfortable enough to move forward.     

“I see no risk with the city terminating this contract,” Com-missioner Dick Fosbury said. “Let’s keep this rolling.”

Added Commissioner Angenie McCleary: “The city has been very clear on what they want.”

For his part, Bradshaw’s message was hard to mistake Tuesday morning.

“The reimbursement is key for us this year,” he said.

Sheriff Steve Harkins said he should have some money left over at the end of fiscal 2019 to replenish the trust account, due to vacancies caused by “the whole debacle of consolidation.” But he won’t know until the books are done in the fall.

Typically, the county has re-imbursed Ketchum about $80,000 per year, according to estimates by the city from negotiations in 2017.

For Voss, even the full $100,000 trust is too thin to cover the operational risk of police work. The

sheriff signs the contract and controls the operation, which means the county owns all liability that could come from it. And, as Voss told the board, law enforcement is a dangerous business.

“We know we have to account for personnel liabilities daily,” he said. “There are other liabilities, which is why we ask for the $100,000. We can’t imagine all of those. Stuff goes wrong, and it can be a little eye-watering to think about. You can’t know.

“We thought $100,000 should be the least amount. It’s a tax-payer liability, but it should be the users paying the bill—that’s the city of Ketchum, not the county as a whole.”

In the case of a full-scale emergency, Harkins said $100,000 would scarcely cover officers’ overtime.

And, the trust has been used for more than reserves. In the past, the city and the sheriff have jointly agreed that vehicles should be purchased from the account rather than slotted into Ketchum’s budget, Drage said. Harkins estimates that Ketchum has obtained eight police vehicles through “mutual decisions” by the county and city, based on recommendations by the Sheriff’s Office.  That amounts to about $400,000 worth of capital purchases made via reimbursements from the county’s account to the city over the past decade.

This year, the Ketchum division needs to replace a Ford Expedition at a cost of around $50,000, Harkins said. With the surplus funding already pulled out of the trust account, and other funds potentially tied up by existing personnel liability, he said he doesn’t know where that money will come from.

“The city has never budgeted for a capital purchase,” he said. “Basically, we’ve bought [vehicles] out of savings. …

“I cannot let us get like the Ketchum Fire Department, with run-down equipment that doesn’t work.”

Deputy Fruehling echoed his boss’s concern.

“If I had tons of trust in the city that they would actually budget a car for us, I’d feel more comfortable doing this,” he said. “But I don’t have a ton of trust. For them, it’s easy to put on the back burner.

“We’ve always said they should budget for it, but I haven’t seen it. … My concern is that the city would give us the money for a Volkswagen Rabbit and call it good.”

On Tuesday, Voss favored a “wait-and-see” approach.

“It’s one vehicle,” he said. “Let’s see how it goes.”

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