City commission approves agreement with PICSD

by Angie Asam –Staff Writer

The debate continues between the group calling itself Concerned Citizens for a Safer Community and the Onaway City Commission regarding police protection in Onaway.

Last Wednesday an agreement between the city of Onaway and the Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Department (PICSD) to provide police protection went before the Presque Isle County Board of Commissioners for approval but not before things became more of a debate.

Citizens appeared at the county commissioners meeting and tried to get the agreement stopped. Monday the city commission met and after hearing a prepared statement by city manager Joe Hefele unanimously approved the agreement with amendments made by Hefele and sheriff Bob Paschke.

Hefele’s statement centered around six key points and backed those points up with facts.

“Point one. This group has been telling people that the city, at my direction, has been on some kind of wild spending spree, and it is reckless spending that has resulted in the elimination of the Onaway Police Department. That is utter nonsense. The police department was eliminated due to a substantial loss of revenue caused by falling property taxes and state revenue sharing, which created a large, unsustainable general fund deficit,” state Hefele.

The situation is not unique to Onaway as communities throughout Michigan have faced the same drop in revenue and had to make tough decisions regarding budget cuts. Schools in Michigan have faced the same issue. Cities and schools are not responsible for the drop in revenues but have had to learn to deal with the revenue cuts.

“Point two. This group has been telling people that the city is hiding large sums of money that could be used to fund the police department. Again, this is completely and totally false,” said Hefele.

He believes the group is pulling numbers found online and making them into something they are not. The city’s auditor was at a meeting last month and told the board that the general fund balance is just adequate and the water and sewer budgets continue to be under funded. “Ther is not a $500,000 to $600,000 general fund balance and there is no such thing as a public safety fund. The numbers this group keeps touting are revenues, expenses and fund balance combinations, not cash balances,” said Hefele.

His third point was that the group “would have folks believe that this agreement with the sheriff’s department cannot possibly work and should not even be considered.”

Hefele then offered some numbers regarding police protection. Hefele told the commission and the public that the Onaway Police Department, in the 15 months prior to its elimination, handled an average of 29 complaints and averaged three traffic stops within the city at an annual cost of $75,000 to $80,000.

“Last month, our first without an Onaway Police Department, the sheriff’s department handled 35 complaints and made 12 traffic stops in Onaway at no cost to the city,” said Hefele.

“Now we are attempting to work out a deal that will add additional patrol and visibility to the coverage provided last month, and this group, which claims to be concerned with public safety, is fighting us,” said Hefele.

Hefele’s fourth point was “this group has been telling people that the former chief proposed to work part-time for $18 per hour but was turned down. In reality, though, that’s not accurate either, because that offer evolved into something else,” he said.

The offer evolved into including a $47,000 retirement buyout by the city and 720 hours patrol per year at $30 per hour. Over the course of five years that scenario would have cost the city $87,000 more than the proposed agreement with the sheriff’s department while providing 560 hours less of guaranteed nighttime coverage.

“Point five. Any thought that all crime would have been prevented if the city had simply maintained its one-man department is not realistic. Unfortunately, crime will continue to occur in this community as it does in all others. There were break-ins, vandalisms and theft when we were spending $80,000 per year for police protection and they will occur while we spend a fraction of that,” said Hefele.

He then reminded the citizens that their help is vital in the fight against crime as they need to report suspicious behavior immediately to the authorities.

“Point six. Finally, for whatever its worth, I’d like to comment on the great many posts on Facebook made by members of this group. I say this knowing full well that they won’t stop. I want to encourage anyone who is concerned after reading these posts to please come to me, or any member of the city commission, before forming an opinion. I think we all agree that there are benefits to operating our own department. It would be great if Onaway could afford multiple full-time officers, but it cannot. The money simply is not there,” said Hefele before asking for a motion to approve the agreement with the changes.

Commisssioner Charles Abshagen made the motion, which was supported by Ron Horrocks and the commission unanimously approved the agreement. The agreement is effective on July 1 and is a one-year agreement. It will automatically renew from year-to-year unless one party gives the other written notice of intent not to renew at least 30 days prior to its expiration.

Under the agreement the city will pay the county $25,000 per year in quarterly installments of $6,250.

The PICSD will provide coverage in the city with a stationed deputy for a minimum of 16 hours per week on average throughout the year during nighttime hours. The PICSD will also use the city’s police building with the city paying the cost of the utilities.