OPD issue heats up at city commission meeting

by Angie Asam-Staff Writer

With the only issue on the agenda being the Onaway Police Department (OPD), the Onaway City Commission took the majority of their meeting Wednesday morning to listen and respond to citizens who wanted to ask questions regarding things going on in the city at this time, mainly issues revolving around the OPD.

As already made public, the commission has had to face some difficult decisions regarding its budget for fiscal year 2013-14 which began April 1. One of those decisions was the future of the OPD, as the commissioners have not funded the OPD budget at its normal $70,000 – $80,000.

Many citizens have come forward on the issue, as they are concerned about safety if the OPD no longer operates. The city has submitted a proposal to Presque Isle County that would keep current OPD chief Jim Gibson employed and provide police coverage to Onaway on a regular basis.

Under that proposal the city of Onaway would pay the county $50,000 in return for keeping Gibson employed and providing 40 hours of coverage in Onaway. A committee has been formed with representatives from the city and the county to go over that proposal and try to work toward a solution.

“We are working on the situation. It is a process. It is great you are all here to give your opinion. We can do this; I just want to make sure we do it the right way. I need to make sure we do it correctly,” said PI sheriff Bob Paschke to the group of citizens that were gathered to give their opinion.

CONCERNED COMMUNITY members, not all whom were residents of the city, raised many questions and comments to the commission Wednesday and they were pleased that the commission was answering their questions and comments. Mayor Gary Wregglesworth explained that usually the commission has an agenda to get through but with nothing other than the OPD issue on the agenda they had time to take questions and provide explanations.

Many of the concerns and questions were over making cuts in other departments as a way to keep the OPD operating and chief Jim Gibson working. Those in attendance shared stories of Gibson’s service and personal dedications, many accused the city commission of not being concerned about safety.

“Major budget problem. Big hole. Every year the property taxes are going down more and more. Every year the revenue sharing is going down more and more.

“Within severe budget constraints other communities have laid off police officers. That is absolutely not what has happened here. We’re pursuing multiple things. It has been going on for months, looking into a way to keep a person employed and keep a police presence and live within the new fiscal constraints we have that are not going away. The thought that anyone here does not care about police patrol or doesn’t care about this person is absurd,” said Hefele.

Many concerns were raised and Joan Moran asked why Montmorency County was able to use grant money to hire five new officers.

The commission explained to her that grant money from the United States Department of Agriculture was used to purchase new vehicles and other equipment but a one percent millage increase gave them the money to hire five new officers.

That discussion then raised the question of how Montmorency County could raise their taxes just one percent for five officers but Onaway would need four percent to keep one officer. It was explained that the tax base in the city of Onaway compared to that of the county was much lower.

“Am I misunderstanding? They are not going to pay Jim (Gibson) $50,000 salary to stay here but they are going to give the county $50,000?” asked Joan Moran.

“The police budget is between $75,000 and $80,000. The city would contribute $50,000 to the county and the chief would become a deputy of the county. There isn’t a giant savings through that scenario. The big savings does not occur until our officer is permanently rolled into the sheriff’s department and the city isn’t paying that $50,000 anymore,” said Hefele.

Hefele also explained that in three or four years the county would save that $50,000 and could nurse the streets along until then. “Our streets are only getting worse. Our water system needs work. Every year at budget time we come up with a priority list. And every year we do nothing a section of street that was mediocre is now on the bad list. If we keep doing nothing, 10 years from now that list is going to be 25. Where is the future city commission going to get the money to fix the roads? They are going to look back and wonder why we did that to them,” said Hefele.

“I hear about the roads and I hear about the money and I hear about all this. What about the safety of our people, our businesses, our town without the OPD? We might as well close up this town,” said Marma Beatty. “Is all your concerned about is money and the streets and not the safety of Onaway? This absolutely makes me sick,” she said.

Many of those in the audience seemed to have the belief that without the OPD response time would be very long and they would not have a police presence. Sheriff Paschke informed them that they will provide coverage to the city no matter what, even if the agreement between the city and the county doesn’t happen. The Presque Isle Sheriff’s Department has long collaborated with the OPD on many investigations and incidents within Onaway and  plans to continue to provide for the citizens of Onaway.

THE DISCUSSION continued and many concerns were raised and answered as community members wanted answers to a wide variety of concerns and the meeting took a drastic turn into what appeared to be a personal issue.

The meeting got a little personal at times as citizens asked if the city manager even resided in the county.

Hefele answered to that concern letting the commission and the public know that on a temporary basis he and his family are indeed living in Krakow Township working on a family home so it could be sold. His permanent address is in Case Township. Hefele reiterated to the board that he is dedicated to his job and has looked at moving into the city of Onaway but can’t afford two mortgages.

Citizens then raised the concern that if Hefele was so dedicated to his job why he was looking for other positions. Hefele is a candidate for the job of Alpena city manager and has previously applied for the city manager position in Mackinaw City.

Mayor Wregglesworth told the audience that with the controversy going on Hefele probably saw the writing on the wall.

“I know I’ve been attacked, it gets back to me and it is above and beyond a recall or people going after my job. My reputation is being trashed. I knew this was coming as soon as we started talking about it. I knew I would be the face of this but the bottom line is I know this budget up and down. I know that the financial situation isn’t changing and that we have to adapt to it. I feel like we’re trying everything we can to keep a man employed and keep as much police presence as we can in Onaway,” said Hefele.

“I know my reputation is being trashed and yes it does make it more difficult to come to work everyday and I don’t know when it goes away or if it goes away. And so yes I would admit that I have looked elsewhere but I will tell you that in my 12 years here I have worked very hard and I believe in this plan, I believe we can make this community better. It is not the fault of the city of Onaway that the housing bubble burst and property values came plummeting down across the nation. Nor is it our fault that the state took revenue sharing dollars to plug their own budget holes but we have to adapt to all of these things. I understand that this has become personal and I understand the stress load but we are trying,” said a visibly upset Hefele.

AFTER HEARING the manager’s speech commissioner Chuck Abshagen took time to echo his sentiments as well as one raised by commissioner Ron Horrocks earlier that the crowd did not get to speak for the commission.

“Anybody that is in the audience or has been in the audience in the past and thinks that we don’t support police protection is either deaf or has not listened to what we have said. We have all said we support police protection in the city but the question is how we can do that so it is financially feasible for the city,” said Abshagen.

Realizing that things were becoming sensitive Wregglesworth decided it was time to move on with the agenda.

The commission received copies of two proposals to keep the OPD, the proposal with the county as well as one to allow Gibson to retire but do part-time patrol for Onaway. No decisions were made or will be made until the best decision is made clear. Gibson is employed through April 30.