Preliminary police agreement language approved: still up for discussion by county

by Peter Jakey-Managing Editor

The Onaway City Commission approved a draft of an intergovernmental agreement with the county that would allow Onaway police chief James Gibson to join the Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Department (PISD).

The agreement still has to be reviewed and finalized by county officials. Additionally, Gibson’s contract with the city, which was set to expire at the end of March, was extended 30 days by the commission as details continue to be worked out.

Under the proposal, Gibson would become a deputy with the city still subsidizing part of his salary until an opening in the sheriff’s department became available.

City officials have been trying to close a lingering budget gap of about $50,000. The city has lost revenue from a cut in revenue sharing from the state as well as falling property taxes.

Monday, the commission convened to conduct a charter mandated public hearing and finalize the 2013-14 budget. The new fiscal year begins April 1.

It was one of the most attended city meetings in many years, and many were there to see what the police department’s lone officer’s fate would be.

Attendees included city residents and businesses owners, as well as non-city residents. About 64 people took up every available chair and stood along a side and back wall.

The last time a city meeting generated that much interest, the same issue was on the table: the possible elimination of the Onaway Police Department.

Prior to the commission’s approval of the draft agreement prepared by city attorney Mike Vogler, city manager Joe Hefele said the details of the agreement have not changed much since the proposal was brought forward.

“It is a one year agreement that can be renewed automatically, unless one of the two parties puts in writing some objections for renewing the agreement,” said Hefele.

The city would pay the county $50,000 during the term, in quarterly installments of $12,500, with the first installment due three months after the agreement is entered into.

“The county would hire Jim Gibson as a fulltime deputy sheriff, patrolman classification, on the effective date of the agreement,” said Hefele. “During the term, the sheriff’s department would station a deputy in the city for a minimum of 40 hours per week.”

Twenty of the hours would be spent between the hours of 6 p.m. and 2 a.m., Hefele added. The agreement would allow deputies the use of the city police department building with the city continuing to pay for utilities, including Internet.

If Gibson decided to accept a fulltime position with the sheriff’s department, the city would discontinue the quarterly payments and PISD would no longer be obligated to station a deputy in the city for the 40 hours.

“The city’s intent is to try and to employ deputies, certified police officers, to work nights,” said Hefele. “We would have an expectation that the sheriff’s department would handle the day-to-day. The long investigations, the subpoenas, chasing bad checks, things of that nature,” said Hefele. “Revenues that we do have would be placed for nighttime patrol. Understanding that, in our business district there is a concern when they lock their doors and head home, there are people out and about. They would like to see the car go back and forth.

“The same goes for our residents. When they see people walking down their street at midnight, 1 a.m. They would like, to the fullest extent possible, to know that there is a blue or a white car driving by.”

Hefele said there is a small savings while supplementing Gibson’s wages initially, but if a position became available and he took it, the city would realize a larger savings.

Hefele would be proposing to spend $100 per shift to work evenings. “And try to put on as many evening shifts as the budget would allow,” he said.

Instead of a $75,000 to $80,000 police budget, it could be between $10,000 and $15,000, he said. That would include the cost of the building, vehicle maintenance and insurance.

“There is a potential $50,000 savings,” said Hefele. “It does not free up the money to fix the stuff that needs to be fixed immediately, but at least you can see at the end.

“A big part of this agreement was keeping a person employed and not see them go into the unemployment line…budgets are tight everywhere. We have been trying to provide as much coverage as we can; we have been trying to avoid a trip to the unemployment line; and at the end of this, we are trying to keep coverage on, especially at night.”

Gibson was asked by commissioner Jessie Horrocks if he wanted the position.

“Absolutely,” Gibson answered. “I don’t think I have ever given an indication that I didn’t.” He had read through the proposed agreement and said, “There are other issues that we have to discuss and explore, before it is finalized.”

The committee handling discussions has been at a standstill with the absence of county commissioner Bob Schell, who has been on vacation.

Commissioner Chuck Abshagen, who was not in attendance, wrote a letter in support of the proposal. He believes it is important to maintain local police protection, while living in the constraints of the budget.

“I believe, clearly, the best option that is available to us is to pursue the agreement with the Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Department,” Abshagen stated. “This will provide us with a long term budget solution to the budget issues that we face, while at the same time freeing up money to deal with infrastructure.”

Commissioner Bernie Schmeltzer said monies have been taken from water, sewer and street funds to plug the budget and city employees have not had a raise in five years.

“We had two defeats of the Headlee millage and it was only for 1 1/4 mills each time,” said Schmeltzer. “If we add four mills on top of the 18.75, it raises the cost of living.”

He had a dozen people contact him since the budget debate restarted and only one person said they would be willing to pay the additional tax. “The others said they can’t, or they won’t,” said Schmeltzer.

The newly formed Concerned Citizens for a Safer Community had representatives in the audience. They have been circulating petitions in support of keeping the Onaway Police Department intact as is. They are supporting other budget alternatives such as raising four mills to specifically fund OPD, or reducing the city manager to part time, eliminating a part time clerk, or not rehiring a part time DPW worker.

Former fire chief Eric Rose spoke on behalf of the group during the public comment period.

“We have over 50 percent of area businesses already signed up,” said Rose, regarding the petitions. “Over 50 percent of the people who we have approached so far, are signing our petitions. That petition is for a millage of four mills to be dedicated to the operation of our police department.”

Horrocks made the motion to accept the language of the agreement and continue discussions. The motion was supported by Schmeltzer.