By DAVID GREEN
After Lenawee County Commissioners began talking about the possibility of a county-wide millage for police coverage, an effort got underway to collect information from local government units about law enforcement needs.
Adrian commissioner Tom Neill, a former sheriff’s department deputy, said at a commission meeting in late January that a millage is needed to avoid additional deputy layoffs.
Cletus Smith, a commissioner from Madison Township and another former sheriff’s department officer, said that a millage should be the last option, but he stated the importance of the public believing that Lenawee County is safe. Continuing reductions in sheriff’s department staff can’t continue, he said.
Morenci mayor Keith Pennington attended the meeting and spoke about how the city’s police are often called upon to handle issues in neighboring townships that don’t have their own officers.
His opinion is that a county-wide property tax would not benefit the southern area of the county.
Pennington was asked to serve on a new 12-member Public Safety Advisory Committee to assess law enforcement needs in the county and to research funding options for police coverage.
The group is to offer a report by the end of April. That deadline will give commissioners time to decide if a millage proposal should be placed on the August primary ballot.
Included in the committee’s chores is the order to determine “what impact the proposed cuts to the sheriff’s department budget will have on public safety in each community and Lenawee County as a whole.”
At Morenci’s Feb. 27 city council meeting, Mayor Pennington led council members and other city employees through an eight-question survey form that the committee created in order to obtain information and opinions.
Pennington turned to Morenci Chief of Police Larry Weeks for his opinion on various Lenawee County Sheriff’s Department services.
Weeks said jail operations are the most significant to him among the seven items listed, followed by animal control.
“You would be shocked with how many animal problems we have to deal with,” he said.
Next he chose mutual aid with local law enforcement agencies, but noted that the service has been scaled back.
Cuts in the OMNI drug enforcement agency has limited its presence in Morenci, he said, but the agency does respond to requests. Unfortunately, the smaller agency is now unable to give as much attention to issues as the chief would like.
“I would be surprised if OMNI exists in a few years,” Weeks said.
He closed out the list with the dive/marine team, complaint investigations and traffic enforcement.
The survey sought information about the effect of proposed budget cuts for Morenci.
“If the county can’t send an officer [to a township location], Morenci Police Department will likely be called,” said Morenci fire chief Chad Schisler. “That will take our officer out of town.”
More and more often, he said, the county and state units arrive on the scene later than in the past and the first response comes from Morenci.
Cuts in Michigan State Police funding will likely diminish the agency’s presence further, Weeks said.
In response to a question about collaboration, it was suggested that the sheriff could meet with township boards to seek contracts for coverage.
“We already pay for county road patrol through taxes,” Weeks said.
Council was stymied by the sixth question on the form: Do you feel there is a need for providing additional funding for the Sheriff’s Department and for law enforcement services in general?
“That’s a loaded question,” said councilor Robert Jennings. “Of course they need more money.”
Pennington said the committee came up with three ideas for additional funding: a levy, contractual services and reallocating existing county funding (taking from another agency and moving it to law enforcement).
“Do current services meet your needs?” Pennington asked. “Are you willing to pay more?”
With no answers forthcoming, Pennington moved on to the next query: For communities with their own law enforcement services, what additional staff and funding is needed?
“Is council willing to extend our coverage without additional money?” Weeks asked.
“It would increase our costs unless we say ‘no,’” council member Tracy Schell said.
City administrator/clerk Renée Schroeder asked how the city’s police could morally not cover an incident in one of the townships if requested?
Weeks said it’s up to council to tell him what they want him to do.
The final question asked councilors if they would be in favor of an additional county-wide millage dedicated to law enforcement funding.
After a period of silence, councilor Jeff Bell said that question leads back to number six, asking if there’s a need for additional funds.
At that point more than one council member gave “no” as an answer.
The sheriff’s department budget for law enforcement has fallen about $800,000 since 2008 and is targeted for a further $500,000 reduction for 2013. Road patrol coverage has decreased by seven officers during that time.
County administrator Marty Marshall reports that about a third of a mill is needed to produce $1 million of revenue for the county. There’s a direct relationship between the revenue the county receives and the services the county is able to provide, Marshall wrote in a letter about the county’s standing.