October 31, 2012 - A 'yes' vote gains two police officers.
A 'no' vote cuts two police officers.
In the end, that's what the Nov. 6 election boils down to, according to Oakland County Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Patterson, commander of the Oxford Twp. substation.
Township residents living outside the village are being asked to vote on a two-year, 1-mill property tax increase for police protection.
"I think it's a crucial vote," Patterson said. "It means the difference between reactive and proactive law enforcement."
Reactive law enforcement involves responding to calls for service and dealing with crimes after they happen.
Proactive law enforcement entails trying to prevent criminal activity by creating a visible presence on the street and in neighborhoods via frequent, routine patrols.
"Proactivity cuts down on the crime rate, but you have to have the appropriate amount of personnel to do that," Patterson said.
Patterson cited a perfect example of proactive crime-fighting that occurred in the township back in February 2011.
A deputy working the midnight shift was doing routine business checks in the industrial area on Adventure Lane – just east of M-24, off Oakwood Rd. – when she spotted a suspicious-looking vehicle and investigated the situation.
It turns out the vehicle's three occupants were in possession of a bolt-cutter, electric drill, hand-light, two bandanas, a benzomatic torch and a handgun. Based on what was found, it appears the deputy most likely stopped a potential burglary.
"You have no way of measuring how much crime you stop just by being visible in the community," Patterson said.
Township residents currently pay 2.9152 mills annually for contracted police services provided by the sheriff's department. That would increase to 3.9152 mills if this tax increase passes.
A mill is worth $1 for every $1,000 of a property's taxable value. Given the average taxable value of a residential property in the township (not including the village) is currently $96,800, if this tax increase is approved, it would cost the average homeowner an additional $96.80 annually for two years.
"I don't think we're asking for much," Patterson said. "It's a needed thing."
The levy would begin with the December 2012 tax bill and end with the December 2013 bill. The tax increase would not be levied against or voted on by village property owners, who pay a separate tax – a total of 7.56 mills – to support their own police/dispatch services.
It's estimated the police tax hike would generate an additional $576,482 for the first year.
This extra revenue would allow the township to add up to two officers in order to bring staffing levels back up to what they were in 2010 and provide a financial cushion in the police budget's fund balance going forward.
"We're just asking to maintain what we have and add back some of what we've lost," Patterson said.
The staffing picture
Right now, the Oxford sheriff's substation is staffed by a sergeant who's in command, a detective and 11 road patrol deputies.
These 13 officers serve a township population of 17,090 residents, not including the village.
That staffing is fairly low when one considers that back when the sheriff's department started policing Oxford in 2000, it utilized 11 officers to cover a population of 12,467 residents, not including the village.
Over the years, the substation's staffing has fluctuated. The high point was when it had 17 officers in 2005.
For six out of the 13 years that the sheriff's department has been under contract here, the substation was staffed with 15 officers. That staffing level existed from 2006-10.
What this millage increase buys
and why it's needed
If this millage increase is approved, the substation would be able to bring back up to two officers. One would be a road patrol deputy that was previously cut from the midnight shift (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.).
Currently, there are three deputies assigned to the midnight shift, which means usually there are only two cars on the road for that eight-hour period when one factors in regular days off, sick days, vacation time, etc.
Having only two officers on duty allows for dispatch calls to be handled (i.e. reactive policing), but it doesn't allow for much proactive policing such as subdivision patrols.
Because each shift is required to have a minimum of two officers on duty, if one of the scheduled deputies can't work for some reason, a replacement must be called in and he or she is paid a higher overtime wage, which eats into the budget, according to Patterson.
Both the day and afternoon shifts each have four deputies assigned to them, which means there's typically three patrol cars on the road during those other 16 hours.
If this millage increase is approved, the midnight shift's staffing level would mirror the day and afternoon shifts.
Having that extra deputy back on the midnight shift would give the officers the opportunity to once again become a visible deterrent to crime during that period, according to Patterson.
The other addition Patterson's looking for would be a detective who deals exclusively with crimes involving youth as either perpetrators, victims or both.
These cases are growing in number and time-consuming to deal with, according to the sergeant. "They're so labor intensive."
The lack of a school liaison officer to cover the Oxford school district means any crimes involving youth must be handled by sheriff's substation personnel. Even though the district has its own private security personnel, that's no substitute in Patterson's eyes for a sworn law enforcement officer.
Private security guards don't have the legal authority to make arrests, which entail more than simply handcuffing a perpetrator and reading them their rights. Law enforcement officers must conduct investigations, obtain warrants, interview witnesses, write reports, make court appearances, etc.
"The work product is still there – it doesn't go away just because there's no school liaison officer," Patterson said. "You still have to do the work with the few people you have remaining . . . Right now, I've got one detective that handles everything."
Patterson noted that Oxford is unique in that it has Crossroads for Youth on E. Drahner Rd., which houses many at-risk children and teens placed there by the court system.
In 2011, the sheriff's department responded to a total of 78 calls for service at Crossroads for Youth, which is an average of 6.5 calls per month. These calls range from reports of runaways to incidents involving threats and assault.
Patterson noted that every time a youth runs away from Crossroads, his deputies must conduct an area check and write a truancy report. These runaways sometimes commit crimes in the area such as burglaries, which adds to the substation's workload, the sergeant noted.
What happens if the millage
In addition to increasing personnel, the additional tax revenue would also help offset the $613,217 drop in the police budget's fund balance that is projected to happen in 2013 and 2014 if this millage hike doesn't pass.
Based on current projections, by Dec. 31, 2014, the total police fund balance will be an estimated $9,956, which is not enough to balance the budget in future years considering previous dips into the reserve fund have been in the six-figure range.
The use of reserve money became more and more necessary and larger in amounts as local tax revenues shrank in recent years due to declining property values.
"(Township officials are) not going to let the contingency fund go down to $9,000. They're just not going to do that," Patterson said. "The only way you can maintain any type of fund balance is to cut police officers."
"From what I've been told by the (township) board, we're immediately going to lose probably two more (officers)," he continued. "The only real overhead you have in a cop shop is the building and the police officers. So, you have to cut bodies; you have to cut police officers."
Patterson indicated they'd probably end up cutting one deputy from the day shift and one from the afternoon shift.
"You'd be right back to the staffing levels of the year 2000 when we came out here," he said. "You're starting to go backwards instead of forward."
But now, instead of having 11 officers serving a population of 12,467, they'd be policing a community of 17,090.
And that's a problem in Patterson's view.
"The population has increased every year," he said. "You have that many more people, you're going to have that many more crimes."
Fewer officers could mean slower response times and an inability to fulfill specific requests such as wanting increased patrols in subdivisions to catch speeders, according to Patterson.
"If we keep going backwards, I can see people not understanding that the less (officers) we have, the longer it's going to take (them) to get there to do those things – or maybe not at all," he said. "There's times when these (deputies) are going from call to call to call to call. They're taking report calls all day and they don't get a chance to go do those proactive things."
It's up to the people
When asked which way he thinks township voters will go on this issue, Patterson said, "It's hard to tell. I don't know. It's up to the people."
There is a trend of communities approving public safety millages. In the Aug. 7 primary election, voters in 12 out of 13 Oakland County municipalities approved millage renewals and additional taxes for public safety departments.
Patterson is hoping to avoid a repeat of the November 2010 election in which Oxford voters turned down a five-year, 0.75-mill police tax increase by a margin of just two votes – 2,886 to 2,884.
"We've done what we can to try to educate people this time around," he said. "My hope is that it's going to pass, but times are tough and you never know."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.