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Monmouth Battles To Keep Academy

A year ago, the chances of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training staying in Monmouth seemed iffy. The odds are improving.

MONMOUTH -- A year ago, the chances of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training staying in Monmouth seemed iffy.

Those odds are improving.

Whether or not the academy is staying or going is a decision for the Legislature. Local officials are holding their breath.

Academy administrators say the current site, next to Western Oregon University, does not leave enough room for a driving course, firing range and other expansions.

They seriously considered taking the academy -- and its 135 jobs -- out of town.

"We know we can't meet our needs in our current facility," said DPSST Director Diane Middle.

She said the academy needs at least 165 acres for classrooms and parking as well as a driving course and firing range.

The academy's 135 jobs makes it Monmouth's second-largest employer next to the university itself. It trains not only police officers, but also firefighters and parole and probation officers.

With the academy at risk, city officials sprang into action. They put together a detailed proposal designed to hang on to the facility. They proposed two sites.

The first site is 184 acres north of Ash Creek on the edge of both Monmouth and Independence. It would be near the new intermediate school off Hoffman Road.

An alternative site would be closer to Western Oregon University. Western officials recently bought 25 acres on the northwest corner of campus in the hopes the academy would stay in Monmouth.

It would not be big enough for a driving course and firing range. Those would still have to located at the other site -- a mile and a half away.

Monmouth Mayor Paul Evans thinks the proposals are compelling. "At this point, the academy is ours to lose," he said.

The final decision is in the hands of the House Ways and Means Committee. It will decide where the academy will go. The full Legislature will decide how much to spend on the project.

Just when that decision will be made is hard to say, said State Rep. Lane Shetterly of Polk County. "It's tied up with all the other funding issues with Ways and Means," he said.

State legislators have other problems these days. The revenue forecast for the entire state just took another dip.

"That's going to slow down the decision-making process in Ways and Means when it comes to the academy and a lot of other budget issues."

Shetterly said it could be the end of the session before any final decision is made on the academy's new home.

Middle said several sites are being considered. However, she said, a central location is a dominant consideration.

Salem started out as a major contender. However, Salem Mayor Mike Swaim wants the academy to stay put. So do the mayors of other surrounding communities.

The mayors of Independence, Keizer, Turner, Aumsville, Stayton and Sublimity issued a letter through the Mid-Willamette Valley Council of Governments, urging Middle and other academy officials to stay in Monmouth.

Salem, in particular, doesn't need the academy, Shetterly said.

"It's just another state facility for Salem. It means the world to Monmouth. The other communities understand the impact on the local economy."

The Monmouth proposal allows the academy to expand training eight weeks to 10, Evans said. "That could double the number of jobs and mean an economic generation in the millions of dollars."

The academy staying in town is by no means a foregone conclusion, Evans said. "But we put together a strong case that includes strong possibilities for the academy while strengthening its ties to Western."

It is not just Monmouth's plan. It was put together as a partnership between city, university, county, school district and fire district officials.

"Everyone has come out and recognized the potential benefits of this plan," Evans said.

The academy has been in Monmouth for the past 30 years. Throughout those years, Evans said, there has been a close tie to the community and the training facility.

"I think Monmouth has gone out of its way to be a good neighbor to the military academy, police academy and Western."

The academy also helps the city, Evans said. As a small university, Western sometimes comes under fire from legislators who would like to close it down.

Having the state police academy next door helps both the city and the university in the eyes of the Legislature, Evans said.

"I think it's important that the public safety academy stays in a college town," Evans said. "Being near a university sends a powerful symbolic message to the state."

It also sends a message to the public, Evans said. People sometimes look at law enforcement as a working class, blue-collar job. The academy reminds people that the men and women of law enforcement are highly trained and educated professionals, Evans said.

Police officers, firefighters and corrections officers who attend the academy often get college degrees next door at Western.

"Our local economy has been purposefully tooled to serve the university, public safety academy and the Oregon Military Academy," Evans said.

Having the academy in town also helps area law enforcement agencies and fire districts, Evans said. "We are in the forefront of the new training and new technology. We get that as a matter of course."

Many area police officers and firefighters are instructors at the academy.

"I am very very proud of what DPSST does in our community," Evans said.

Other legislators would like to see the academy in their districts, Shetterly said. Freshman State Rep. Dorothy Johnson of Scappoose is among those vying for the academy's attention.

Johnson serves on the Ways and Means Committee. However, she is a freshman legislator with no ability to set the agenda for the committee.

Scappoose, Burns and other remote locations are not really viable options, Shetterly said.

People in Central and Eastern Oregon may feel ignored from time to time, he said, but the fact is that most of the state's police officers and firefighters are on this side of the Cascades.

"This has to be a facility that is available to the widest range of public safety officers," Shetterly said.

Monmouth is located right along Highway 99W -- a major artery between Eugene and Portland. The town has other advantages, Shetterly said.

Anywhere else, academy officials would have to start from scratch. A new academy in Monmouth could be phased in.

Shetterly has been a big cheerleader for keeping the academy in Monmouth.

Between sessions, he kept in contact with Gov. John Kitzhaber's office and DPSST, keeping them up to date on local and statewide support for Monmouth's cause.

Nonetheless, Shetterly said, the process has to play itself out. Members of Ways and Means will make the decision, mindful of input from academy officials.

"That's the process we need to respect," Shetterly said.

Evans has been banging this drum since 1998. He is amazed, he said, that the project has gotten this far.

"A year and a half ago, still being in the fight did not seem possible. Now I think we have a fighting chance. I think that's all you can ask for in a democracy."

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