Sheriff's office eyes new central precinct home

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter

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When the Clark County Sheriff's Office turned a small building on Public Works property into its central precinct office, the relocation was supposed to be temporary.

Nineteen years later, 40 deputies and six sergeants still report to the 15,000-square foot building in Brush Prairie that is better described as an appendage to a warehouse.

"It's not a police station; it was never intended to be a police station," said Cmdr. John Horch, who heads the central precinct.

The building, located on Northeast 149th Street just west of state Highway 503, was built in 1973 and used as offices for commercial manufacturing before the county bought it. The stairwell to the second floor doesn't meet fire codes, and the small lobby limits what the public can do at the east-county hub.

"The facilities just aren't adequate," Horch said.

That's why he is heading an effort to find a new home for the central precinct, whether that be through renovating an existing building or erecting a new one.

Even though the project will likely be a hard sell with a tight county budget, Horch said the issue is worth attention.

The deputies at the central precinct "have a lot of pride in their work out here, but they don't have a lot of pride in where they work," Horch said. "It's kind of become a mockery."

Service imbalance

He said residents who live in the central precinct — about 130,000 people in 448 square miles — are really the ones being underserved.

The 40-square foot lobby doesn't allow space for citizens be fingerprinted for concealed weapons permits. The lack of space also means there are no public meeting rooms and that there are no detectives stationed on the east side of the county.

"That's wrong; that's flat out wrong," Horch said.

Its counterpart, the sheriff's office west precinct, is by the fairgrounds in Ridgefield and has a community room used for citizens' academies and volunteer trainings. Specialty operations, such as the canine unit, bomb squad and the tactical detectives, are all stationed at the west precinct.

Having those resources heavily weighed on one side of the county means there are less readily available services for residents on the east side of the county, Horch said.

"One of my jobs is to fight for the deputies and fight for the citizens out here," he said. "We could be providing so much more."

Budget challenges

The effort to replace the building is not a new one.

Sheriff Garry Lucas requested funds to build a new central precinct, a two-story building just south of the current location, in 2004 for the 2005-06 biennium budget, but county commissioners didn't appopriate the money. The sheriff made another attempt at get the funds for the 2007-08 budget, but that again failed.

When the recession hit, the agency had to cut deputy positions and shelved the building plan.

This year, eight deputy positions were added back to patrol and the sheriff's office financial manager, Darin Rouhier, said that the plan is to ask for eight more next year.

"We're rebuilding from recession," he said.

Horch said he understands the need for more deputies, but added that facilities are also essential to the sheriff's office's function.

"It's a question of what's important: our bodies or our buildings," he said. "They're all important."

One way to fund the endeavor, Rouhier said, is to this time try a different avenue: a comprehensive, countywide capital facilities plan.

"Our best effort is to get it rolled into a bigger capital facilities plan financed through borrowing," Rouhier said.

Commissioners 'averse'

Laura Pederson, program manager for county General Services, said there is no plan to float a facilities bond measure but that there have been discussions.

"It's a big-picture idea, but there's nothing in the works," she said. "It's in the preliminary discussion phase, not even the planning phase."

County Administrator Mark McCauley said a facilities plan would not get approved anytime soon, probably at least not in the next five to 10 years.

"Our board of county commissioners is dead averse," he said. "The county budget is balanced but fragile. ... (Commissioners) don't have an appetite to borrow more money."

Horch said that position is disappointing but not surprising.

"We've been hearing that for a long time already," he said, and added that the ongoing effort to replace the central precinct hasn't been taken seriously. "Somebody owes some answers to the citizens out here."