Sheriff seeks millage, contracts to boost coverage

By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

Allegan County Sheriff Frank Baker knows there are too few deputies on patrol and handling investigations.

While the department’s personnel have remained locked at 53, including himself and undersheriff Mike Larsen, since 2011, he has seen the county’s population rise.

“That’s where we’re starting to see the pressures we’re feeling,” Baker said, speaking to other law enforcement and municipal officials at a special evening workshop April 27. He believes his department’s response times have suffered and are getting worse.

Ostensibly, at any given time of day, road patrol has two sergeants and six patrol deputies on duty, covering five zones of the county.

“On paper this looks pretty good,” Baker said. “If we could do this every day, we’d be very happy—but we can’t.”

Generally, instead of six there are only four on patrol, forcing the department to assign a third of the county (six townships) to each of three deputies, keeping the fourth as a rover to help as needed. This is because the pool of deputies is decreased in a variety of ways, Some are recovering from injury or illness; others are on vacation. They could be needed in court proceedings or away at training.

He said cutbacks have also meant that caseloads for the detectives are not appropriate for the level of service he thinks county residents deserve.

“And as the law enforcement from the cities know, you’re routinely being called out to assist us, to back our officers up—or take the original calls, because we don’t have anyone that can respond in a timely way,” he said. Sometimes, he pointed out, the city police handle the entire call before the sheriff deputy arrives.

Millage

An appropriate level of service for the current time, Baker said, could be attained by adding eight new deputies and four more detectives.

That would add approximately $1.2 million in new staffing costs for the department. Another $800,000 is the projected need in the prosecutor’s office and in the court system to handle the increase in enforcement.

That staffing would put the department at the level it was at more than 10 years ago.

Short of other increased revenue the county could receive, funding those additional positions could take a roughly 0.5-mill countywide tax, a measure generally supported by Allegan County Board of Commissioners Chair Dean Kapenga, former Sheriff Blaine Koops and Baker. A millage of that size would generate roughly $2 million annually for law enforcement.

During the workshop, the crowd of 40 to 60 participants divided up into five groups determined by the five patrol zones of the county. They then answered a series of questions about the increased staffing level.

Most in the room favored it, and very few appeared to comment that they directly opposed a millage to fund it.

Commenting on alternatives, several suggestions revolved around incentivizing more contracts between the county and local townships for deputies. There are currently eight deputies funded in this way. Contract deputies are built around a 40-hour work week; the local municipality works with the sheriff department to schedule those hours to fit local needs. The deputies are then only called out of the area for serious situations and get to dedicate their time to the township or townships that are directly paying for them.

The contracts cost approximately $100,000; the local municipality pays 75 percent of that, and the county pays the rest.

One alternative briefly suggested and discussed was having sets of three townships each combine funds to pay for a deputy contract; between 24 townships, that would put eight more deputies on the road at a minimal cost to each township.

Public perception

Regardless of whether or not a ballot proposal of that sort could pass in Allegan County, discussion at the workshop soon turned to what an increased staffing level actually did for the county.

Allegan police chief Rick Hoyer said it merely caught the department back up. For instance, it would not directly address the growing concern of computer-based crime.

“It’s selling everyone short... You’re going to have to have specialists in positions to keep up with this,” Hoyer said, noting that those investigations monopolize a lot of law enforcement’s time and effort. “It’s a very specialized field, knowing how to get into a computer, a phone, and retrieve data, the evidence. It’s time-sensitive stuff.”

Hoyer also said current staffing levels were not good enough. By way of example, he recalled a shooting in Allegan city last year for which three sheriff deputies were called in from off duty to respond. He said it came down to the public not being aware of how thin current levels of protection were.

“You’re not being protected. And not only are you not being protected, you’re not being served in a proactive way,” Hoyer said. Given training now being done for schools about active shooters, he said, “Our environment has changed, and we’re not even keeping up. To me it’s appalling to think we’re okay with that.

“I don’t know if (the public is) aware of what they’re tolerating. Things aren’t good. They’re not safe—for the officers, the community, the kids. We have really a crisis.”

Baker agreed that the proposed staffing would basically get the sheriff department back to an appropriate minimum.

Otsego police chief Gordon Konkle said the first recent, public safety millage failed in Otsego because—though the city had cut city staff by a third—the public generally did not see reduced service and the city had not communicated the cuts.

“People thought, ‘Well, there’s nothing wrong,’ because the city didn’t want to say how bad things were. Everyone just assumed we just wanted more money.”

He warned that that public awareness level will sink a countywide millage.

“Rick hit the nail right on the head; that’s what’s going to happen to us,” Konkle said.

Kapenga said he was thankful for everyone who came and shared their thoughts and that the public perception of the sheriff department’s level of service was the main takeaway from the gathering.

“We had unity in saying, ‘Wait a second, there is a problem; we realize that,’” Kapenga said. “We need to inform the public on the problems that are going on and the lack of response times.”

He said he thought that shared realization would drive the effort to either consider a countywide millage or more contracts for sheriff deputies.

“I’m just encouraged by the support of the people here to go forward with something.”

 

CURRENT STAFF:
2 captains
1 lieutenant
8 sergeants
4 detectives (for general cases and CSC)
1 detective, WEMET
24 road patrol deputies
8 contract deputies
3 traffic unit (state funded)

Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

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