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Amelia Nielson-Stowell: Bluffdale police vote likely will be tabled

BLUFFDALE — After months of debate, Bluffdale will vote on the fate of its police force Tuesday — that is, if its council can agree.

There's a likelihood the vote will be tabled, as few residents have weighed in during public hearings, and the council is still unable to reach a unanimous decision on who will police the small south valley city.

The city has been studying three options since the summer, spanning the election of a new mayor and two city counselors. On the table is joining Salt Lake County's Unified Police Department, contracting with Saratoga Springs police force or creating its own department.

City counselors at a meeting Saturday butted heads over coverage.

"(With UPD), we're not getting the service out here that we should," Councilman Noell Nelson said, pitching a self-provide model to the Concerned Citizens Committee. "I think this is a time you've got to put your foot forward and implement it."

"(The meeting) is for them to listen and ask questions, not for you to sell what you're wanting to do," said councilman Bruce Kartchner.

Costs for the three options vary. With UPD, Bluffdale would be paying $656,531. Contracting with Saratoga Springs would cost $687,583 (and $643,983 by year two). Creating a Bluffdale police force would cost $955,836 for the first year and $843,506 by year two.

The 18-member committee appointed by the council met for more than four hours Saturday. Made up of many former and current police officers, the group spent a significant amount of time analyzing cost estimates of the self-provide model.

"You budget something you can afford, and this is not something you can afford," said resident Wayne Mortimer.

While a Bluffdale force is appealing, it's too expensive, the group agreed.

The consensus was to ditch UPD, go with a Saratoga Springs contract and work toward a self-provide model in better economic times.

Bluffdale currently contracts with UPD, but the city has not been happy with the county department. Bluffdale wanted a UPD option that would allow it to control its service level, but UPD won't budge, city officials said.

Of particular concern is that, under UPD, Bluffdale does not have a dedicated officer at all hours.

"(With UPD) It's impossible to have Bluffdale covered 365, 24-7. There are holes in the coverage. There are times in Bluffdale when we don't have an officer," City Manager Mark Reid said. "We request and we request. They're a large organization, and Bluffdale isn't their main concern, I hate to say it."

The current UPD contract requires cities to fund one officer per 1,000 residents — a requirement that would force Bluffdale to increase its police staff from 4.5 to eight full-time officers, hiking Bluffdale's fee to $1.5 million.

Although Salt Lake County has promised leniency on that point, neighboring UPD members Riverton and Herriman want Bluffdale to up its police force right away. They point to Bluffdale's negative crossover numbers that show Riverton and Herriman officers respond to Bluffdale emergency calls more than Bluffdale responds to calls from the other Salt Lake County cities.

Outside of the massive cost increase, city officials wonder what so many officers would do. The current UPD model has three full-time officers covering Bluffdale roughly 15-16 hours a day, with 24-hour backup.

As a bedroom community with no retail, Bluffdale averages only 90 dispatch calls a month, roughly one call a day per officer. In other cities, a UPD officer handles 14.

"If our officer gets two or three calls a day, that's a big day for Bluffdale. Adding officers seems counterintuitive, because what would they do?" Reid said.

Traffic enforcement is the chief police duty in Bluffdale.

Another public hearing is set for Tuesday at 7 p.m., at which point the council will vote on which option they will take.