Community input sought
Officials satisfied with police, but want public's thoughts
June 01, 2011 - Before Oxford Village makes any decisions or puts anything on the ballot regarding the future of its police and dispatch services, council agreed there needs to be more information, more discussion and definitely more community input.
"To throw something on the ballot within three weeks, I think, would not be wise," said Councilman Tony Albensi during a lengthy discussion on the subject at last week's village meeting. "We need to get community involvement as much as possible."
Albensi's the one who previously suggested council explore the possibility of outsourcing its police and dispatch services as a way to potentially generate long-term cost savings.
"I'm not saying that I'm for this or against this," he said. "I think there should be a lot of options on the table."
Village Police Chief Mike Neymanowski told council he and his officers were offended by council discussing the possibility of outsourcing.
"We took this as a slap in the face," he said.
Village President Teri Stiles told the chief, "We all are aware that this is an emotional issue and please, don't take it personally."
"I have and we have," Neymanowski replied.
The chief asked council members if they were pleased with the service his department is providing to the community.
"Absolutely," Albensi said.
He explained that when he "brought this up it had nothing to do with being dissatisfied with the level of service in this community."
"I'm completely satisfied, but it was a discussion that needed to be (had)," Albensi said. "Quite honestly, I got the feeling that no other council member wanted to bring it up, so I brought it up. I'm completely satisfied with the police department. I'm completely satisfied with our dispatch.
"But I'm put in a position like this not to make decisions and votes based on emotion. My decisions and votes are based on facts and what I'd like to think of as just common sense."
Stiles indicated that she too is "110 percent" satisfied with the current local police and dispatch services.
"I'm totally pleased as a council member and as a resident," she said.
But Stiles explained she can't speak for every village resident and that's why she wants to hear how they feel about the issue and what they want.
"We're trying to do (our) due diligence for the whole community," she said. "I would love to say with all my heart and with all my knowledge every single person in this community is pleased with the police department and they want it here. Then we wouldn't even be having this discussion."
"I'm sorry that it is an emotional issue and I'm sorry that it upsets people. But I think it's our burden that we have to talk about it," Stiles noted.
Councilman Tom Benner noted that any comparisons made between the village police and another agency, such as the Oakland County Sheriff's Department, must be done in an "apples to apples" fashion.
"I want to know cost per officer, per agency, per hour – as many men on the shift as what our own department (offers)," he said. "I don't want (any) cutbacks. I don't want anything different because that's the only way to make a true (comparison)."
However the village chooses to proceed with the police/dispatch discussion, Albensi indicated he believes council members should keep an open mind and refrain from expressing their personal preferences.
"I don't think any council member should be willing to say which way they lean one way or the other," he said. "I don't think that does the conversation any good. That can be somewhat influential and we need to just lay the facts out on the table. I honestly can't tell you which way I would vote right now and I don't think it would be fair for me to say which way."
Councilman Dave Bailey admitted he couldn't do that.
"I would like to say that I'm totally unbiased and that I'm not leaning in a direction, but I know myself well enough to say that if I said that, I would be lying," he said. "I am biased. It's the way it is. I'm supporting our present police force. That's the way it is."
To Bailey, "dollars and cents is a consideration, but it's not the only consideration."
He believes a local police department offers the community "transparency."
"We know who our officers are, no questions," Bailey said.
Bailey also expressed his reservations as to what would happen if the village contracted with the sheriff's department and a bad officer was stationed here.
"If there's a rotten apple out there, who got in trouble in some other community . . . and that bad apple got assigned to Oxford, I would not like to see that happen," he said. "If such a thing should happen in our own department, well, we know what to do with bad apples here. We simply remove them from the force. We don't reassign them to Oxford Lakes patrolling."
Resident John DuVal expressed his belief that the only reason council is "having this conversation" is because the village is dealing with "contracting revenues."
But Stiles insisted that's not the case.
"This was not born out of budget constraints," she said. "It comes up at budget time because it's a big topic at budget time."
To Stiles, the main reason it's being discussed is because village residents "never had the opportunity to vote on" police/dispatch services or funding.
"In my mind, it's this community that has the right to vote on whether they want it or not," she said.
The current incarnation of the village police department was formed by a vote of the five-member council in December 1999. Since then, village voters have never faced any ballot questions related to police millage, funding, level of service or which agency should provide law enforcement to the municipality.
"Ultimately, if it needs to be a vote of the people, I'm completely in favor of that for police," Albensi said. "I don't know about dispatch. That's a totally separate issue in my mind."
DuVal urged the council to tread carefully when it comes to performing its due diligence with regard to local police and dispatch services because they're a "community asset" and "once they're gone, they're gone."
"A village-maintained department keeps us a town," he said. "It is the single most important element of a village or a community. Once a decision for it to go is done, it's never coming back."
DuVal also advised council to "look at everything" in the village budget, not just police and dispatch, and discuss "what are we getting back for our tax dollars in other areas."
"We need to look at how this community was administered 20 years ago – what the demands of the administration (were then) versus what they are today," he said. "We need to look at the DDA, which functions with an entirely different mission today than they did 20 years ago."
"It would be a shame to take steps on police and dispatch only to find that we really haven't made any other efficiencies any place else," DuVal noted. "If we're going to think outside the box, there shouldn't be anything that's not on the table."
Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth agreed.
"It's not just about the police," she said. "I think we need to sit down and have a serious discussion about every service we offer – which service is beneficial, which service pays for itself, which service is worth the cost."
"Let's look at all of it and what's really feasible for our employees to do and which ways can we really save some money," Helmuth noted.
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.