When Vancouver officials announced budget cuts this summer, expecting to decimate city services, Jerry McDermott decided to pick up his phone.
A retired Portland Police officer and Vancouver resident, he peppered police brass with his ideas to have volunteers staff shuttered precinct lobbies and cross-reference pawn shop sales for stolen goods.
In departments across the city, calls from inspired do-gooders like McDermott have increased, Assistant City Manager Eric Holmes said. And as a result, Vancouver is examining how it can use more volunteers to pad losses as workers are let go.
But the city has to tread carefully — using unpaid workers to do union-protected jobs could lead to trouble.
Already, the Vancouver Police Officers Guild has filed a grievance over Neighbors On Watch volunteers’ using license plate scanning equipment to recover stolen cars, contending that’s a job for officers.
There’s also a challenge of finding ways to coordinate meaningful work, Holmes said.
“We’re looking at ways to harness that grass-roots energy,” he said. “Unless we harness that energy and guide it in a way that’s productive … it could do more harm than good.”
Whose job is it?
It’s not as if the city’s new to the volunteer game.
For years, citizens have been drafted to clear trails, landscape, help with logistics and inventory in the police department and do many other tasks, Holmes said. A senior and retired volunteer program has thrived.
But it’s time to do more.
“Our historical way of doing business is not sustainable,” Holmes said. “As we look to the future, we have got to find a different way to do business.”
McDermott thinks he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve. He has met with an assistant chief, a lieutenant and a few other people in the police department.
“One of the conversations I had was that in the East Precinct, there’s absolutely nobody inside,” he noted.
The VPD closed lobbies in the East Precinct and Police Administration buildings in January after nine civilian employees were laid off.
McDermott also wants to see a pawn shop detail, whose volunteers could check both Portland and Vancouver for stolen property.
Police Chief Cliff Cook said he’s heard some of those ideas and is interested in seeing the role of volunteers increase in his department.
“I’d really like to see volunteers in the lobbies,” Cook said. “That’s what my emphasis would be, aside from” expanding Neighbors on Watch.
But Police Guild President Ryan Martin said staffing the front counters with volunteers is just a shabby patch holding together tattered framework.
“It’s putting up a silk screen to the public and telling them we’re a full-service police department, and we’re not,” he said. “It might make the community feel more comfortable, but it doesn’t solve the real problem.”
Still, he said volunteers are “a benefit to the police department” — as long as they are doing work that doesn’t encroach on union jobs.
Arbitration is set for October over the issue of the NOW volunteers’ using the mounted license plate scanners.
Cook said he feels the NOW program is structured in a way that doesn’t violate any union contracts. In this case, he added, the license-scanning equipment will not work on patrol cars — it’s too heavy and it may break apart if a car goes faster than 65 mph.
The guild maintains that the work is for police officers only, and the equipment should be mounted on patrol cars.
“Our main concern is not that volunteers are taking our work away from us,” Martin said. “But they could be in a confrontational situation with felons who are using stolen vehicles. … We shouldn’t be putting volunteers in that type of situation.”
McDermott expressed his frustration at some of the roadblocks he’s seen as he tries to get some of his ideas realized.
“The unions need to approach problems with some flexibility in a time of emergency,” he said. “We need to do what has to be done until the situation is normalized.”
Not the only answer
Legions of unpaid workers aren’t a silver bullet that will solve the city’s $10 million budget gap, Holmes said.
“A pure volunteer strategy is not one we can rely on,” he said.
Sometimes volunteers can lose passion, or a program can fizzle, and so he said he’s interested in seeing “value-added” volunteer programs that won’t leave a core service in the lurch should they fail.
He acknowledged a complex relationship with unions, but also said that many workers have offered ideas about where citizens could step in.
The Parks Department, which has had a volunteer program for the last 10 years, is among those where volunteers are a most natural fit, Parks Manager Jane Tesner Kleiner said.
“We are seeing such an increase in folks’ wanting to help, we took a hard look in early 2010 at who are we using, what are we having them do, what’s the need,” she said.
They’ve created a “how to help” section on their website, and are looking at creating programs such as Adopt a Park. Ivy pulls, trail use counts and countless other one-time events are constantly happening as well, she said.
Holmes said Vancouver is also looking at ways it can work with local nonprofit agencies.
Overall, he said, it’s still pretty early in the brainstorming process.
“We’re trying to identify what opportunities can be done through a more cohesive volunteer program,” Holmes said. “It remains to be seen if we can effectively do that.”
Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.