BOLIVAR – Bolivar’s mayor and Town Council agreed to start discussions toward jointly funding municipal police coverage again with the neighboring town of Harpers Ferry.
However, several of Bolivar’s seven elected officials said last week during a public council meeting that they wanted to proceed cautiously and deliberatively while considering the suggestion from Harpers Ferry officials. Mayor Helen Dettmer and several Bolivar council members also cleared the air over past and current concerns, disagreements and frustrations between the towns and their leaders.
Dettmer agreed with several Bolivar council members that having a conversation about the possibility of renewing previous cooperative funding of a police force that formally serves both Bolivar and Harpers Ferry could be worthwhile. But she echoed others in saying Bolivar officials should not rush into any arrangement with Harpers Ferry.
“I think that the political climate next door that needs to settle down, shake out and see where we end up,” Dettmer said, referring to an unresolved court challenge to Harpers Ferry’s contentious council election. “That’s a huge concern of mine that we don’t even know within a month we might not have the same people at the table.”
Bolivar’s annual contract with the county sheriff’s department to provide the town’s current public safety service ends June 30. A clear majority of Bolivar officials agreed to look at renewing the town’s current police service arrangement with the county for another year. There’s not enough time this year to evaluate whether the town might change its current arrangement, the officials said.
Bolivar’s police service is intertwined with its municipal budget process and with the county’s budget process which hasn’t started but needs to be completed in April.
Bolivar officials said they won’t officially meet next to conduct town business until March 3.
The conversation over whether Bolivar should re-evaluate its current police service arrangement with the sheriff’s department was initiated by Harpers Ferry officials. Most of the town’s officials attended last week’s Bolivar council meeting to show their support for starting fresh negotiations over jointly funding a municipal police service.
“Safety is very important at a reasonable cost, and I think we need to look at that,” offered Harpers Ferry Councilman Christian Pechuekonis. “I know that there was stuff that’s happened in the past between the towns. I’d just say, look, let’s look at it fresh with fresh eyes and look at the facts and how they may come out.”
Several of Bolivar’s leaders said they wanted more information before they could make any decision. Councilwoman Sandi Marra said she wants information to compare the training and certifications that Harpers Ferry’s police officers and Sheriff’s deputies have. She said she wants information on the number of police service calls Harpers Ferry police and the sheriff’s office receive and respond to.
Dettmer agreed. “I need to find out what Harpers Ferry’s police department can provide that we don’t already have,” the mayor said.
Marra was the first but not the only Bolivar official to directly address personal dynamics several said were hindering more cooperation between the two towns.
“I do have some heartburn about going into any kind of arrangement right now with the current government of Harpers Ferry,” Marra said. “I find it slightly disingenuous that [Harpers Ferry officials] want to partner with Bolivar in this, but when Bolivar has been very clear in where we thought we see partnering as important with other issues facing Harpers Ferry, we’re kind of told, ‘Well, you don’t live in Harpers Ferry. You don’t have any say.’
“So that’s going to be part of my process through this as well,” she added. “Either we really are a partner in everything and our voice does count, or we’re not.”
Councilwoman Amanda McDaniel also acknowledged tensions between the two towns’ leaders, but she added that she hoped officials would mend any rifts for the benefit of both towns and their residents.
“I’m very much interested in generally repairing our relationship with Harpers Ferry,” McDaniel said. “I feel like it’s in our best interest to work as sister towns and not against each other. It’s extremely unfortunate and to our detriment that, you know, we have not a great relationship right now.”
McDaniel joined Councilman Jerry Powell and Councilwoman Sarah Gordon as the Bolivar officials voicing the strongest interest in exploring whether Bolivar should help fund the Harpers Ferry Police Department as it did about five years ago.
More recently, Bolivar has contracted with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office to provide police patrols and service for Bolivar’s approximately 1,100 residents.
Powell said he wanted to evaluate what police service arrangement might be for Bolivar. He said a police officer on patrol in Harpers Ferry might respond much quicker to a public safety issue in Bolivar than a deputy somewhere else in the county can.
“We’re here for the people of the town and give them safety,” he said.
Gordon, the wife of a Loudoun County sheriff’s deputy, said Jefferson County’s sheriff’s department “does a good job” for Bolivar with the resources it has. But she added that Bolivar officials should also continually evaluate the effectiveness and the cost of its police service options.
She pointed out that she voted last year against renewing the current service agreement with the sheriff’s department because she wanted the council to more closely review the overall arrangement.
“I do think it’s important to take the time to hear and consider from the town of Harpers Ferry every single time this contract [with the county sheriff’s office] is up for renewal,” she said. “I want to hear options every single time we vote.”
A local business owner, Gordon said many business owners in Bolivar want to see the town’s officials explore whether to renew at least some measure of police coverage that Harpers Ferry provided in the past.
Gordon shared her own personal experiences as part of the conservation. She said county deputies took about 90 minutes to respond to a police call she made in the past. Previously, when Bolivar was assisted by Harpers Ferry’s police department, another police call she made had a response time “within seconds.”
Harpers Ferry’s police department employs three full-time officers and two part-time officers, a force that would serve about 1,500 residents of Bolivar and Harpers Ferry, Gordon also pointed out. The Sheriff Office operates with about 37 deputies responding to traffic enforcement and public safety calls serving an approximate population of 56,000 residents in Jefferson County 24 hours a day.
“It just comes down to basic numbers for me,” Gordon said.
Bolivar pays the county $80,000 for a certain amount of sheriff’s deputy patrols. The city was paying Harpers Ferry more than twice that amount several years ago to support its police department. A Harpers Ferry administrator recently said Bolivar last paid about $140,000 a year to support the town’s police force.
Dettmer and Bolivar Recorder Jean Reed said saving costs was a significant reason previous Bolivar officials decided to pay sheriff’s deputies for its public safety rather than Harpers Ferry officers. But Dettmer was also among the Bolivar officials who emphasized that the contracted police service county deputies were providing was reliable, professional and effective.
“I think we have a very, very safe community,” the mayor said. “I think [county deputies] give very, very good coverage, so I don’t want them to think that we’re here to beat down the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office because we’re certainly not. I don’t think that’s the intent of anybody at this table. I certainly hope not.”
Harpers Ferry police officers would also respond today to any serious public safety incident, the town’s police officials have said. Moreover, all of Jefferson County’s police forces operate under “mutual aid” agreements that allow their officers to respond to and take action on any public safety call or incident within all of their jurisdictions. For example, Charles Town and Ranson police officers respond to serious emergency public safety calls in both municipalities. A Shepherdstown police officer would respond to a serious call for assistance nearby in the county to assist the sheriff’s department.
Councilman Steve Paradis said the long-term reliability of Bolivar’s police service is as important as cost-effectiveness. The public safety service that Harpers Ferry provided Bolivar in the past wasn’t always trouble-free, he added. At one point, he said, Harpers Ferry sought assistance from the sheriff’s department to help fulfill the town’s obligation of police service to Bolivar, he said.
Paradis said all of the police forces in Jefferson County—municipal, sheriff and federal park service—should be working together to protect citizens and visitors, and if they aren’t, that issue should be discussed and resolved so that they do.
He also questioned how Harpers Ferry will be able to maintain its current annual expenses of more than $500,000 to maintain its police force without the tax revenue from the proposed redevelopment of the stalled $140 million Hill Top House Hotel.
“I certainly don’t want to disrupt the fine service that we’ve been getting from the sheriff,” he said, “because if something were to happen down the street we’d be right back to the sheriff’s door asking for help again.”
Paradis said he wants town officials to think creatively about providing municipal police coverage. For example, directing both towns’ current public safety spending to the sheriff’s department might allow for more creative and stronger police coverage for both towns, he said.
“The sheriff is key no matter what we do,” he said. “We have to keep that first and foremost in our mind.”