BOLIVAR – The adjoining towns of Bolivar and Harpers Ferry have been served for decades by the same water system, public library and fire department — and at one time shared a police department. Under an agreement between the towns, Bolivar paid a fee to Harpers Ferry to help offset the costs. That was until about four years ago when Bolivar, in a cost-cutting move, asked the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office to patrol its streets and respond to public safety calls.
But Harpers Ferry’s officials want to discuss returning to the shared municipal police coverage. With a newly beefed-up police force covering Harpers Ferry, town leaders plan to propose renewing the partnership during Bolivar’s regularly scheduled Town Council meeting on Jan. 7.
“I’d love to see Bolivar citizens there [at the Town Council meeting] saying, you know, ‘Please, we really want this,’” offered Harpers Ferry Mayor Wayne Bishop during a public meeting two weeks ago.
Four weeks ago, all seven elected officials of Harpers Ferry sent Bolivar’s elected officials a letter seeking to explore joint police coverage for both towns. “We believe that by working together we can provide strength and protection to our community through efficient services and a unified police presence,” the letter reads.
Harpers Ferry officials say having Bolivar return to utilizing their town’s police department would benefit both towns.
Harpers Ferry Councilman Christian Pechuekonis said that Harpers Ferry’s police officers are always on patrol right next to Bolivar’s homes and businesses. “There’s no question that our police can respond faster to an emergency over there,” he said.
Bolivar has no police force serving its approximately 800 residents.
Previously, Bolivar was paying Harpers Ferry about $140,000 a year for police patrol. Bolivar now pays the Sheriff’s Office $80,000 a year for deputies to patrol the town and respond to public safety calls there.
Under a yearlong agreement with the Sheriff’s Office and the Jefferson County Commission that ends June 30, sheriff’s deputies include Bolivar in their regular patrols and public safety calls.
This year, Harpers Ferry is projected to spend about $532,000 for its police department, which employs five sworn police officers and an administrative assistant.
Harpers Ferry receives about $80,000 in annual grant funding from the National Park Service to assist the town’s police department, which helps patrol the park’s property in town, particularly at night.
Bolivar Mayor Helen Dettmer has declined to comment on Bolivar sharing police coverage with Harpers Ferry. In the past, she has said news coverage portrayed the issue between the towns as more contentious than it was. Bolivar officials simply decided to go their own way on public safety to save its town residents money, she said previously.
Bishop said it’s likely an agreement could be reached where Bolivar would pay about the same for police service from Harpers Ferry that it’s now paying the county. “I think that we can be close to what they’re paying the Sheriff’s Office right now, but we’re beginning the discussion,” he said.
One issue to negotiate would be how much revenue from law enforcement fines and tickets the two towns might share.
Some Harpers Ferry officials, including Bishop, want to annex into Harpers Ferry the section of U.S. 340 on the eastern side of the Shenandoah River below Loudoun Heights. Those who support such an annexation see it, at least in part, as a revenue opportunity for Harpers Ferry’s police officers to patrol and issue traffic tickets, the fines for which the town could keep as revenue.
Bishop indicated Harpers Ferry might collect more revenue from traffic enforcement on another short stretch of U.S. 340 if Bolivar agrees to allow Harpers Ferry to patrol its jurisdiction. “It’s like a free annexation,” he said of such an agreement, “because if we cover Bolivar then we cover all of [highway U.S.] 340 up to the light” at Washington Street on the west end of Bolivar.
“If this works out, it’s going to be very good for our budget,” Bishop added.
During a council meeting two weeks ago, Pechuekonis said he talked to a Bolivar council member who expressed concern that the Harpers Ferry Police Department might not adequately handle or investigate a serious crime.
“She didn’t feel we were equipped for it,” he said.
Harpers Ferry Councilwoman Charlotte Thompson downplayed such concerns. “We took care of those things before and I think they were pleased with what we were doing,” she said.
Bishop has said he sent Dettmer letters asking to discuss sharing the cost of police coverage for both towns again. He said Dettmer didn’t respond. He also said it appeared Dettmer didn’t share his letters with Bolivar’s council members.
Bolivar has a “split council” on whether the town should rejoin the previous arrangement for mutual police coverage, Bishop said. “We’ll be facing a split council, so if the town of Bolivar really wants this to happen they should be working [to get town residents] to show up” to the Jan. 7 council meeting in Bolivar, he said.
Two weeks ago, Bishop openly acknowledged that personal “politics” and “hard feelings” have been factors in the issue.
“There were hard feelings between the two towns and [the late Bolivar mayor] Bob Hardy,” he said. “God bless his soul, he’s gone, but he was pretty hardcore about it when they decided not to have us [share police coverage], and so when Helen [Dettmer] became the mayor she carried on a lot of Bob’s positions on things.”
“And [Dettmer] told me—and you guys have heard this over and over—‘But Wayne, don’t tell me how to run my town and I won’t tell you how to run yours,’ and I said, ‘I’m not, just I think this would be beneficial for both towns,” Bishop said.
Bishop, who has been active in Harpers Ferry municipal affairs for years, was elected to his first term as his town’s mayor in 2017. That same month, Dettmer, a former council member for Bolivar, was re-elected to a third two-year term as her town’s mayor.
During last month’s discussion about the issue of joint municipal police coverage, Bishop noted that if construction happens on the proposed Hill Top House Hotel redevelopment in Harpers Ferry—a $140 million project that has been long delayed in large measure by the indecisions of the town’s officials—trucks making deliveries for the project will have to pass through Bolivar.
“That would be a strong case because our police department will help manage that” traffic generated by the Hill Top project, Bishop said. “Trust me, that [truck traffic from the Hill Top construction project] is going to be a huge issue. I can see the county saying, ‘Well, what do you want us to do? What are we doing to do? We’re not directing traffic here.’”