by Peter Jakey- Managing Editor
The debate continues regarding what to do with a projected shortfall in the city budget.
A few weeks ago, the Onaway City Commission voted to send out a survey to receive input from taxpayers about possibly cutting the police department.
Taxpayers have been asked to decide on one of three questions about keeping the police department and letting the roads turn to gravel; eliminate the department and reduce the budget; or support a tax increase of up to four mills to pay for the one officer, chief Jim Gibson. The city is projecting a general fund deficit of more than $50,000 in 2013-14. The budget needs to be approved before April 1.
City officials are hoping to receive the completed surveys back by Feb. 1, but they didn’t have to wait until next month to find out what residents were thinking.
Many residents filled the commission meeting room Monday at the courthouse to provide feedback, and most were in favor of maintaining a local police presence and commended Gibson’s work in the community. Several said they would be willing to see taxes raised to keep the police department.
Represented in the audience were business leaders, residents, and members of the law enforcement community, as well as school and government officials.
It was a civil debate, with nearly everyone in the audience expressing an opinion during the public comment period; however, some said they wish there were more options on the survey, and a handful questioned the city’s spending decisions regarding projects and the seeking of grants.
Mary Getzmeyer of Fat Boy Coney urged the city to find other ways to make cuts and expressed her support of a police presence.
“We need to keep our cop,” said Getzmeyer. She has called Gibson at 5 a.m. to report vehicles driving 50 m.p.h. in the downtown area. “Jim has wrote tickets for that,” she said. “If we don’t have a cop, we are going to have break-ins. I think there are other ways of fixing our budget.”
Former city commissioner Mel Perkins said he is a proponent of the police department, and with revenue sharing from the state continuing to shrink, he believes “four mills is going to hurt, but it is going to hurt even more three or four years from now.”
Norm Smith, the county’s director of emergency management, said he doesn’t know what the community of Onaway would do without officer Gibson.
“He has his finger on the pulse,” said Smith. “He knows the good people, he knows the bad people. He knows the trends in crime – he’s been real good to this community.”
He added, “who wants to come here and retire when there’s no safety. It should be a priority for any community.”
Joe Libby, director of the Presque Isle County Economic Development Corporation, and an Onaway taxpayer, suggested the city commission establish a “citizens’ advisory committee,” to look at the budgets and come back with a recommendation and/or options. He said it should include city reps and community business leaders, who already have volunteered to serve.
“I will tell you, we could put together a really nice committee, to look at it line by line,” said Libby. “(Citizens) have always been invited to budget workshops, we all know that. Until there is a problem, how many of us show up?” he asked. “I’m one of them, I wasn’t here. I’m here to volunteer now, as are other community leaders, business leaders and taxpayers.”
Businessman Dave Kolosa said Gibson “is an asset to the community.” He also believes the city commission should consider Libby’s offer.
Dean Tebo, a Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Department deputy and an Onaway resident, offered his support and added that the one-man force, “is grossly understaffed.” He suggested the city should consider a Headlee Rollback request again, which has been turned down twice in the city.
“Those are mills we can get back,” said Tebo. He said he would be able to afford the four mills, “Some people can’t, but we really need a law enforcement presence in the city.”
Sheriff’s department detective Steve Porter, another city resident, called Gibson “probably one of the hardest working guys I know. I think very few people realize what he does for law enforcement in this city. I support him whole-heartedly and I will be willing to pay as much as it take to keep him.”
Mayor Gary Wregglesworth told the audience that the commission would consider everyone’s thoughts when they evaluate the survey and make their final decision.
“I appreciate everyone coming in supporting the police department, it’s refreshing,” said Gibson, which was followed by a loud round of applause. Each commissioner expressed his and her thanks for those who came to speak at the meeting. City manager Joe Hefele, who submitted a column this week, said only 34 percent of the surveys have been returned. He also added that if anyone doesn’t like the questions on the survey, they can leave them blank and provide input in the comment box.
There was no action taken, or further discussion regarding the citizens’ advisory committee.