STANTON — Voters will decide how much coverage they want from the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Department.
The County Board of Commissioners voted 7-1 on Monday to bring a $1.5 million proposal to the people to maintain and increase sheriff’s coverage for the next five years.
Voters will decide on Feb. 28 whether to approve a property tax increase of up to 1 mill to generate about $1.564 million over five years for the sole purpose of providing funds for the law enforcement function of the Sheriff’s Department.
The county won’t have to pay any additional election costs because the vote will take place during the presidential primary election.
Sheriff Bill Barnwell said an additional three to five road patrol deputies would be added to the current roster of 13 deputies paid from the county’s general fund, not including detectives and sergeants.
County Controller-Administrator Chris Hyzer said millage revenue also would fund $125,000 of equipment purchases per year for each of the five years, including uniforms, vehicles and weapons.
“We’ve looked at this very carefully,” Barnwell said. “It’s not something that I ever wanted to see in my career, but we don’t want to go to less than 24/7 coverage in this county. It’s not something that we want to do.”
Crystal, Eureka, Montcalm and Sidney townships currently pay for dedicated patrols from four additional deputies. Barnwell won’t be surprised if those four townships drop their contracts for sheriff’s coverage if the millage passes.
The sheriff’s department has endured budget cuts for years, including the loss of another road patrol position this year. Barnwell has said the department’s road patrol ranks are stretched thin and further cuts likely would mean the end of round-the-clock coverage.
Hyzer said further cuts are possible next year when the next county budget is adopted due to falling revenue from housing jail inmates.
Kalamazoo County is building a new jail that will open at the end of 2013, leading to $234,000 in lost revenue next year for Montcalm County from lodging overflow inmates in Stanton. The U.S. Marshal’s Service also recently signed a contract for lodging federal prisoners with Newaygo County, directing more revenue away from Montcalm County.
“Any more cuts to road patrol and we’ll probably lose 24/7 coverage,” Hyzer said. “That’s why we’re going now instead of waiting until next year. We want to make sure that we don’t lose the officers that we have.”
District 3 Commissioner Ron Retzloff said he went hunting in another county, which he didn’t name, that recently dropped 24-hour sheriff’s coverage. That county’s board of commissioners is now asking residents to pass a similar millage to restore coverage.
“They’re in a situation that I don’t want to see us in,” Retzloff said. “They lost their 24/7 coverage and they’re having big problems. I think this is probably our best time to do it.”
District 2 Commissioner Tom Lindeman cast the lone opposing vote Monday.
“I think this is a general fund supplement and I think we are in need of supplementing our general fund, not just law enforcement,” Lindeman said.
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” Barnwell said.
“I don’t expect an answer,” Lindeman said.
District 5 Commissioner Carl Paepke was absent from Monday’s meeting due to illness and did not vote.
Barnwell said the outcome of February’s vote will depend on educating the people.
“People will have a lot of questions, I’m sure,” he said.
“Good luck, sheriff,” concluded Chairman Patrick Q. Carr.