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Dilemma: Cut sheriff's staff or ask for tax hike

June 16, 2010 - Will Oxford Township residents be comfortable with a reduction in their police services or will they want to increase their property taxes in order to keep staffing levels the same plus add a school liaison officer?

It appears those are probably going to be the options facing voters when they go to the polls in November.

"I would hate to see us put ourselves in a position where we can't . . . properly police the community and put the public at risk," said Oakland County Sheriff's Lt. Larry Perry, commander of the Oxford substation.

Township officials are slated to go over the figures and discuss the issue at the Wednesday, June 16 special meeting.

As it stands right now, due to the significant drop in taxable values, the township cannot afford to maintain its current staffing levels at the substation over the next few years without completely exhausting its $1.292 million police fund balance and ending up with a deficit.

The substation is currently staffed with a lieutenant, detective sergeant, patrol investigator, 12 deputies and a full-time administrative assistant. The whole operation is funded by a 2.9152-mill voter-approved property tax that's set to expire with the December 2011 levy.

A mill is worth $1 for every $1,000 of a home's taxable value

At last week's regular meeting, township officials voted 5-2 to direct their police committee consisting of Supervisor Bill Dunn and trustees Sue Bellairs and Joe Bunting to prepare four things for the board to review and possibly act on.

The first is a budget based on the current tax rate of 2.9152 mills. The second is a budget and millage rate that supports the current staffing levels plus the addition of a school liaison officer.

In addition to those budgets, the committee must devise a millage request for the ballot seeking voter-approval of a straight renewal of the current 2.9152-mill rate.

The committee must also come up with a millage request asking voters for the difference between the current rate and the number of mills needed to fund the existing staffing levels plus a liaison officer.

The proposed budgets and millages would be presented as two- and three-year options.

In essence voters would be asked to decide on two questions a simple tax renewal that results in less police staffing and a tax increase, which, when combined with the renewal, would allow the substation to keep all of its officers and administrative assistant, plus add a school liaison officer.

"I think the ala carte process is the way to go," said Treasurer Joe Ferrari.

A tax increase?

Based on some rough calculations made by Trustee Mike Spisz, if voters approved both, they would be paying a total of 4.08 mills.

The idea of asking residents for a tax increase didn't set well with some officials.

"These are not easy decisions, but we have limited resources and to go out to the public and ask for more and more and more, it's tough," Dunn said. "There's people losing homes, can't afford medicine. You know we're all in the same situation.

"I would love to see the maximum manning where everybody's protected, but again, to go out and ask for extra money now (is a) pretty tough thing to do."

Trustee Joe Bunting favored keeping substation staffing the same, adding a liaison officer and giving voters the option to raise their taxes in order to accomplish all this.

"I agree these are tough times, but again it falls upon the board and its responsibility to protect its citizens and in that regard we should give the citizens an option to say 'yes' we want to keep our staffing level up to par and add a youth liaison officer," he said.

Bunting noted that any millage request put before voters should be put in "perspective" for them. For instance, a home with a taxable value of $100,000 would end up paying $34 per month (or $408 per year) based on a total police millage of 4.08 mills.

Staffing levels: Cut, keep or increase

The board was presented with three possible options for police staffing levels between 2011 and 2014 1) cut the administrative assistant to 25 hours per week and add a school liaison officer; 2) eliminate the lieutenant, reduce the administrative assistant to 25 hours a week and reassign a midnight deputy as the liaison officer; and 3) no lieutenant and no liaison officer, cut the secretary to 25 hours a week and eliminate one night patrol deputy.

The lieutenant's position, for which the township pays the sheriff's department $146,875 per year, is the substation's highest cost.

At the current millage rate, all three options showed the township ending up with deficits ranging from approximately $30,000 to $1.58 million as of December 31, 2014.

"All recommendations come out in the red after 2014," Dunn said. "No matter what we choose we're going to be in the red."

"My only concern with (a millage) renewal (request) is I don't see an option in front of me that says we can support a renewal," Spisz said. "I will not support any millage that does not have a budget to support it."

In order to fund each of the above options without ending up with a deficit, Spisz calculated the township would need to levy 3.74 mills for the first, 3.29 mills for the second and 3.09 for the third. All three are rough estimations.

Perry stressed the importance of keeping staffing levels exactly where they're at.

"I feel personally if we take and reduce the staffing numbers in these critical areas that we have going right now, we're not going to be effective in policing the community and we will put the public at risk."

The lieutenant indicated that Oxford is unique from other communities and therefore has unique policing needs.

"I know there's some hard decisions to make, but please take into consideration the diversity of what goes on in this community," he explained. "This is not a normal community that the sheriff's office contracts with. There are specific demands on these officers and on our staffing levels that other townships don't have to deal with."

Perry gave three examples of places in Oxford that tax the substation's resources on a regular basis. "We have the Crossroads for Youth program which puts strains on our resources," he said. "We have two high density housing areas (mobile home parks) which put tremendous strains on our resources. We have the TTI program (Training & Treatment Innovations, a program for the mentally ill) that is now housing people within our township through subsidized housing putting strains on our resources."

Administrative assistant is vital

Even though the administrative assistant, Lori Collier, is not an officer, Perry stressed the importance of keeping the position full-time as opposed to reducing it to 25 hours per week (or five hours a day).

"She's an integral part of things and in the operation of that facility," he said. "It's a pretty crucial position. It's just not somebody to come in there, sit down and answer phones."

Making Collier part-time would mean having periods during the day when there's no one at the substation to serve the public.

"I could have 10 people walk in that door and want copies of reports or need questions answered," Perry said. "I will not pull an officer off the road to sit there and answer phones or make copies of reports for somebody that comes in . . . That's part of that reduction in service that you're going to see."

Dunn noted that other than asking voters for a tax increase, personnel cuts are the only option to avoid having a deficit under the current millage rate.

"If you look at this budget, everything else is pretty lean," he explained. "There's nowhere else to take that kind of money. The only place we can do it is with personnel. Nowhere else in here can we cut the type of money that we need."

Wanted: A school liaison officer

In addition to defending the existing staffing levels, Perry stressed the importance of adding a school liaison officer.

"That position is a key position in the community and in the schools," he said. "It does a tremendous amount of things."

One of the main things the liaison officer does is reduce the amount of draw on the rest of the substation's resources. Perry said having a deputy go to a school to take a criminal report takes him or her off the road for an hour or two, if not longer.

"That kind of makes us ineffective from a policing standpoint," the lieutenant said.

A liaison officer from the sheriff's department would cost approximately $118,000 annually, which includes wages, fringe benefits, dispatch charges, deputy supplies, uniform costs and access to a vehicle.

Bunting is completely in favor of adding a school liaison officer and even read a letter he solicited from Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Taborsky in Jefferson County, Colorado on the importance of the position. This officer was one of the first to respond to the Columbine High School shooting back in April 1999.

"At the time of the Columbine shooting our agency had a school resource officer on the property," Taborsky wrote. "This officer's presence and familiarity with the schools floor plan were invaluable resources for the initial responders and those who were to follow. Since the tragic events of that day the expanded role of the school resource officer has made them an even more valuable tool when it comes to protecting our children."

Bellairs wasn't opposed to adding a liaison officer, but she believes the school district, not the township, should pay 100 percent of the cost for the position.

"I don't see why the school couldn't just take out a mini-contract for nine months, instead of putting more bulk on the township," she said. "Not that (a liaison officer) isn't important and not that we couldn't use it, but let the schools take up some of this responsibility instead of the township."

Options for funding a liaison officer include: 1) the school district pays 100 percent; 2) schools and township split the cost 50/50 for nine months with the township paying 100 percent of the three summer months; 3) make an existing day shift deputy the liaison officer; and 4) move an existing midnight deputy to days and make him the liaison officer.

According to Tim Loock, assistant superintendent of business and operations for Oxford Schools, the district has $50,000 budgeted for a liaison officer for 2010-11.

The village is willing to help

Bunting noted he talked with Oxford Village Manager Joe Young about the possibility of the village chipping in $25,000 to fund the liaison officer position.

Young then told the board that village Police Chief Mike Neymanowski offered the services of an existing village officer as a part-time school liaison officer.

"Once those kids leave school, where do they go? Downtown," the manager said. "Our crime problem doesn't have boundaries."

Neymanowski told this reporter his officer would work 24 hours per week (three days a week) and the cost would be about $16,000 annually. "I think it's a needed thing in our community," the chief said. "That's why I made the offer. Ideally, I'd like to see us both (village and sheriff's departments) in the schools . . . That way kids can get a relationship with both our agencies and keep the cost down.

Given five of the district's seven schools are located outside the village, it was noted by Dunn that village police officers have no jurisdiction in the unincorporated township.

"I can assure you the sheriff's department is not going to deputize," the supervisor noted.

"We can always hold on to a juvenile until they arrived," Neymanowski said.

Unlike village officers, sheriff's deputies have jurisdiction everywhere in Oakland County including Oxford Village.

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.
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