By CHANSE WATSON
PINEHURST — Barring further negotiations, it appears that the city of Pinehurst will once again be searching for another option regarding their primary law enforcement needs.
On Aug. 21, Shoshone County Sheriff Mike Gunderson delivered a letter to Pinehurst mayor Bob Jutila and the City Council stating his office’s intent to end their partnership.
“Dear Mayor and Honorable City council members,” the letter read, “I am providing you with written notice on our intent of terminating law enforcement services with the City of Pinehurst pursuant to section 11 of Security Services and Joint Powers Agreement. Respectfully, Mike Gunderson — Sheriff, Shoshone County.”
Sheriff Gunderson told the News-Press that the decision to end the contract was based on some city officials not being pleased with their work.
“We submitted our letter of intent to end the contract based on it appearing that we couldn’t make certain people on the council happy with our performance,” he said. “We’ve come to an (impasse) and we’re hoping that we can still be there for the citizens of Pinehurst.”
Pinehurst City Councilors could not be reached immediately to explain their frustrations with SCSO’s performance. It appears though that the opponents of the contract believe that SCSO is not holding up their side of the deal — specifically regarding manpower, blight cases and general attention spent on Pinehurst.
In addition to financial and equipment responsibilities, the contract between the two entities states that the sheriff’s office agreed to “support the funding of two law enforcement officers who shall be assigned to the City of Pinehurst.”
While Gunderson admits that this requirement hasn’t always been fulfilled, due mostly to retainment issues that extend beyond the city of Pinehurst, he makes the point that there still was no gap in coverage.
“We haven’t always had two full-time people there in a Pinehurst uniform,” he said, “but our county deputies handled that by taking those calls and patrolling the city of Pinehurst.”
This specific contract is unique compared to others like it because of the effort to preserve the spirit of the Pinehurst Police Department. Although the deputies assigned to Pinehurst were not PPD officers, they still donned PPD uniforms and drove PPD cars.
Gunderson also addressed the issue of blights, saying that despite a slow process to deal with them, SCSO had already cleared up eight out of 12 reported incidents since they were hired.
“The problem with blights is people want things cleaned up immediately and that’s just not how it works,” he said. “Blights are always a problem in any city and in the county. We try to do the blights as we go along, we try to establish which is most important and then we try to work on those.”
In regard to attention to the city, statistics complied by the dispatch center show that between February 2016 and July 2017 (the time in which the contract was in effect), SCSO spent an average of 392 hours per month paroling the city, responded to an average of 79 calls per month from the city and conducted an average of 41.5 traffic stops per month in the city.
Gunderson argues these numbers show that SCSO was fulfilling their contract, all the while providing 24-hour coverage (as compared to a two-person department that cannot).
“I have a high regard for the city of Pinehurst,” he said. “I worked out there for about 11 years for the city of Pinehurst. When they came to me about taking over the contract, it was a no-brainer. We wanted to help the citizens of Pinehurst and I think the stats reflected that.”
In straight dollars and cents, Gunderson believes that he and the sheriff’s office were able to provide a good quality service for a good price.
“One of things we are proud of was we were able to save them a tremendous amount of money in their budget.”
The city of Pinehurst signed a contract with the sheriff’s office in January 2016 (taking full effect in February) to fill a significant void.
Prior to the contract, the city fielded its own law enforcement agency in the form of the Pinehurst Police Department.
The Department served the city for many years, until the sudden medical retirement of longtime Chief Rocky Wilson in 2016, left the agency empty. Gunderson stepped in to fill the role for a short time after, but eventually relinquished the position to take his place as County Sheriff in January 2017.
With no one at the helm of PPD and difficulties popping up in finding a replacement Chief, it was decided that the city would enlist the help of the Sheriff’s Office.
The resistance to the contract with SCSO also played a role in the resignation of Pinehurst City Councilman, Jeremy Groves. A captain at the Sheriff’s Office, Groves explained that as the council leaned more and more toward possibly canceling the contract, he wanted less and less to do with it.
“My personal opinion, as a councilman, as a taxpayer and a resident out there, the city had a good thing with what (SCSO) was providing,” Groves said. “When it came to the end point that this was the route they were going to move forward with, I disagreed with that and did not want to be apart of exploring different avenues for the city like that. I thought they (the city) were getting a lot for what they were paying for and I think the citizens, as a majority, they loved it.”
Former Shoshone County Commissioner Larry Yergler has since assumed the recently vacated spot on the Pinehurst City Council. Yergler was the third place finisher for the position back in the November 2017 election.
With mostly uncertainty ahead for the relationship between SCSO and Pinehurst, Gunderson and Groves both stress that the sheriff’s office will still be there for the citizens and wish for a healthy relationship with the city going forward.
As for what Pinehurst plans to do, mayor Jutila told the News-Press that he is looking forward to working with Councilman Yergler and is currently searching for someone to fill the role of Pinehurst Police Chief.
With the letter of intent delivered, the contract between SCSO and Pinehurst will end on Oct. 20.