County says ‘no’ to patrol grant
MANISTIQUE – Debate over a potential secondary road patrol grant erupted during a recent meeting of the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners Audit-Finance Committee. The approximately $25,000 grant for the Schoolcraft County Sheriff’s
Department was ultimately denied by commissioners in a 3-2 vote.
Discussion about the grant began in a previous meeting, when the board agreed to allow Sheriff Grant Harris to explore whether or not jail staff could find a way to conduct the patrol without incurring overtime costs.
According to Commissioner Craig Reiter, Harris, the county clerk and treasurer, as well as Kim Kelly, chief of the grant administrator, the Michigan State Police Office of Highway Safety Planning, discussed the grant. He noted that the only way the county could avoid paying overtime would be to make changes to union contracts and allow nonunion deputies to carry out the patrol.
Despite the possibility of this change, Reiter explained that he was apprehensive as to whether the department could actually remain within budget. He pointed to the recent budget adjustment made by the county to cover approximately $33,000 in overspent full and part-time wages in the department.
“Even if the union employees gave up their right to road patrol in the next contract, budgetarily (sic) speaking … how could we create full responsibility for the sheriff’s department when they are $33,269 over budget in wages here to date with the responsibilities that they currently have?” he said. “Even with the $25,284 … I feel we’re not in the position to have a road patrol at this time.”
Reiter made the motion to deny the secondary road patrol grant, and was seconded by Commissioner George Ecclesine. During discussion, however, board members offered differing opinions on the grant.
“This money is money that was tickets written in Schoolcraft County … the state police truly need support on the secondary roads,” explained Commissioner Al Grimm. “Therefore, my position stands – I believe we need this.”
Commissioner Jerry Zellar seconded Grimm’s opinion, noting the increased crime rate within the county.
“I’ve been an opponent of road patrol for quite a while, but it’s just things that are happening … things are happening here that shouldn’t happen,” he said. “I don’t like it anymore and I think that taxpayers are entitled to some police protection.”
Dan LaFoille, audit-finance chairperson, agreed with the notion that police protection is needed, but added that county residents should be willing to pay for it.
“What needs to happen is this needs to go to the people of Schoolcraft County,” he said. “If the people of Schoolcraft County want this extra protection, they need to be willing to pay for it.”
LaFoille added the just over $25,000 would not provide sustainable road patrol, and would likely add to the financial burden the county is currently experiencing from deputies’ mandated services.
“We’re saying we’re serving papers, and I’m sure that we are some of the time, but we’re actually performing road patrols right now, and it’s costing us money,” he said. “I see it in the fuel bills, I see it in the wages – I would like to see more officers, but we run a jail, we don’t run a police department.”
While reiterating the residents would have to foot the bill for any road patrol, LaFoille was rebuked by Zellar, who pointed out that taxes were not the answer.
“If we took a state-wide millage for the state police, we probably wouldn’t have any state police either – people are sick of taxes,” he said. “I think the taxpayers are entitled to some protection. It’s $25,000 – do $25,000 worth then.”
After a comment from Reiter that the county must perform mandated services first, Zellar noted the county engages in plenty of unmandated functions – such as a conference for the court system.
LaFoille, Ecclesine and Reiter voted to deny the secondary road patrol grant, while Zellar and Grimm against the motion.
During a public comment period at the end of the meeting, Schoolcraft County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Sonny St. John addressed some of his concerns with the vote to deny the grant. He was supported by a crowd in favor of the grant, and quoted statements previously made by LaFoille against the grant.
“Law enforcement is a necessity, not an amenity,” he said, in response to LaFoille’s statements. “To say that this should be up for some vote in the county is ridiculous.
The sheriff … is responsible for the safety and protection of, not only the inmates in the jail, but also of our law abiding citizens,” St. John continued. “The state constitution says so; I guess you haven’t read that part of it.”
He noted that the county was essentially asking the taxpayers to come up with money while, at the same time, turning away over $25,000 of funding. St. John explained the county had already turned down previous grants – $2,500 for ORV patrol and education and $2,000 for forest patrols – and that they should be taking advantage of these funds.
“Every citizen in this county deserves protection,” he said. “This county’s 1,200 square miles – land mass … and it needs more than three square miles of protection.”
Pointing out that the department’s need to have a car on the road regardless, to complete mandated tasks such as liquor inspections or process serving, St. John explained the part time employees are being badgered by commissioners.
“Those part time employees, that are making less than the shift manager at Burger King is, are educated and certified deputies … responding to emergencies and serving mandated functions of the sheriff’s office for your low wage,” he said. “Meanwhile, instead of praising them for their dedication in response to several life-threatening emergencies, you quarrel about gas bills during the last public meeting. I can’t tell you how discouraging that is.”
In response to Reiter’s claims that the department had overspent in full and part-time wages, St. John said the wages are still $55,000 less than they were in 2010. He also noted that overtime is significantly less than it had been in previous years.
“You’re constant complaints of the sheriff overspending, the sheriff spending this are not making sense,” he said. “You can’t take a cookie-cutter and stamp it on a sheriff’s department and say, ‘This is how much it’s going to cost’. I can’t tell you when the next person’s going to have a heart attack; when a person’s on Indian Lake and needs help – I can’t tell you that … we are not just a jail. You need to get that out of your head, because regardless of whether you accept this $25,000, which you didn’t, we’re still going to the complaints, we’re still answering, we’re still spending gas.”
St. John added that the deputies are not currently conducting road patrols, as implied by LaFoille. He explained stops have been made while traveling to and from mandated services, and that deputies are also mandated to answer complaints called in while on duty.
“I’ve stopped several people in the last week doing over 85 miles an hour on our highways,” he said. “I hope that you appreciate the fact that the sheriff’s department is doing its job to get these people off the roads, because heaven forbid they slam into your son or your daughter or one of your family members and kill them.”
While St. John asked if one commissioner would reopen the issue up for a vote, no action was taken. Zellar and Grimm noted that they respected the opinions of the other commissioners, adding that they simply disagree on the issue.
Two letters in favor of accepting the road patrol grant were read during the communications portion of the meeting, after the vote on the issue had been cast.