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News / Clark County News

La Center, Cowlitz Indian Tribe fail to reach deal for police services inside city limits

City had hoped tribal officers would carry out law enforcement duties

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 8, 2024, 6:59pm

Contract negotiations have failed between the city of La Center and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, where tribal officers would have provided police services inside city limits.

“It’s done. It’s not going to happen,” Mayor Tom Strobehn said in an interview last week. “It’s very disappointing.”

Had the city and tribe reached an agreement, it would have been one of a few instances in the state where tribal police officers were contracted to provide law enforcement services on nontribal lands.

Strobehn said the city’s relationship with the tribe has been great; they just could not reach agreement on indemnification.

Despite the outcome, Strobehn said the city and tribe will still work together on other projects.

“Every relationship has little bumps and curves and twists to it. This is just one of them,” Strobehn said.

Despite a growing population, La Center has struggled with declining tax revenue to fund the services residents want and expect. For years, gambling taxes from the city’s four cardrooms were its largest source of tax revenue. That changed after ilani casino opened in April 2017. Within three years, city gambling tax revenue dropped by almost 60 percent.

City officials had previously been in negotiations with the city of Ridgefield and Clark County Sheriff’s Office for their law enforcement services.

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Following a 2021 review of La Center’s police services, a consultant recommended either increasing the size of the La Center Police Department or contracting out services to another agency. (When the report came out, the La Center Police Department had 10½ full-time equivalent employees. Now, it only has an interim police chief.)

La Center began discussions with the sheriff’s office for services, “but the sheriff’s office was unable to commit to providing services at that time due to staffing challenges,” the study said. After negotiations with the sheriff’s office fell through in May, La Center then approached Ridgefield. Those discussions fell through, as well.

Ridgefield called a halt to the discussions in early July after a citizen survey found a majority of its residents did not support the idea. Some Ridgefield City Council members also had concerns about whether providing police services to both cities would lead to diminished services in their city.

Back to the sheriff’s office

Where does La Center go from here? Back to the sheriff’s office.

“We kept a dialogue with the sheriff’s office,” Strobehn said. “I let (Sheriff John Horch) know that the deal wasn’t done yet. … The sheriff and I are working on the details.”

Since the city last discussed contracting policing services with the sheriff’s office, much has changed. The sheriff’s office has been actively recruiting new deputies. The county council approved pay increases and signing bonuses that have helped fill many of the sheriff’s open positions.

Strobehn said he expects to bring a memorandum of understanding to the city council for approval within the next two weeks, with a final contract ready within 30 to 60 days.

As La Center’s population continues to grow, Strobehn said the city will eventually need to once again have its own police department.

“At some point, it’s going to become too much. The (sheriff’s office) won’t be able to keep up with what’s happening in La Center,” he said.

However, Strobehn said that’s likely still several years away.