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Worries about law enforcement 'crisis' voiced

MABTON - Mabton City Hall was packed last night with concerned residents voicing concern over what Police Chief Robert Perales is referring to as a "state of emergency" in police staffing.

Perales told city council members that police staff in Mabton is down to one full time officer, a school resource officer and a part-time police chief.

One police officer is at academy right now. Another officer obtained a position elsewhere and the position was eliminated from the 2008 budget. To make matters worse, Mabton Police Officer Anthony Russell was injured this past weekend during a scuffle with a suspect.

"Now we only have coverage in the schools and only part time in town," Perales said, adding there's no police coverage on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.

Mabton School District Superintendent Sandra Pasiero-Davis opened citizen discussion by voicing her support of local law enforcement, both in the school and the community. "As a taxpayer and superintendent, I (am) strongly supportive of keeping the police department strong," she said.

Artz-Fox Elementary School Principal Dawn Weddle noted the difference between having officers on duty versus waiting on a sheriff's deputy. "It could mean immediate help when Mabton arrives versus waiting an hour or two or more for (a sheriff's deputy)," she said.

Citizen Rachel Ruelas expressed her concern that a gang problem is brewing, as she's seen a spike in graffiti. Teacher Julie Urrutia echoed this statement, saying she's heard fear expressed from her seventh graders about gang activity creeping into Mabton. "I fear for the kids," she said simply. "We need a lot more police coverage; 24-hour coverage should come back and stay."

Perales asked council members to up him to 40 hours a week at a cost of $675 a month to the city. He also asked to utilize a reserve officer for 16 hours a week.

"You guys have absolutely no dollars to be doing a budget amendment," warned the city's financial consultant Ret Stewart. Despite this, council approved that an additional $600 be spent on law enforcement until Monday, Jan. 28, when the council meeting can re-convene and financial numbers presented.

Perales, who is on administrative leave from his duties as a full time police chief in Granger, argued that technically the city would only be paying him $175 more a month because the monthly $500 payment to Granger is currently not in effect. That $500 was applied to goods and services in sharing Perales with Granger. And the $675 a month it would cost to move him to full time is the lowest grade pay for a police officer, he said.

He also argued that Labor and Industries will pay a portion of Russell's wages during his injury related time loss, therefore the city should be able to pay for a reserve officer.

Councilman Angel Reyna questioned why current police coverage isn't being shifted to handle peak times, like the weekends. He also asked Perales not to openly share with community members when police coverage isn't available.

Ruelas asked council members where the money saved from unfilled positions, like the city administrator, public works position (eliminated by the 2008 budget) and police officer position was going. She was told that when anti-tax initiatives were passed, funds the city previously received suddenly vanished and little to no support was given by the state of Washington. That, coupled with the fact that Mabton needs a stronger tax base, are reasons for low revenue.

"We are at a point where we don't have the resources to defend ourselves," said councilman Mario Martinez.

"If you need to do a tax hike, then do it," Ruelas said.

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