EUREKA TOWNSHIP — Around the clock coverage from the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Department could soon be a thing of the past.
Sheriff Bill Barnwell told the Eureka Township board Monday night that a 1-mill property tax increase must be approved on Feb. 28 for 24/7 coverage to continue.
That millage would add four new road patrol deputies to the current roster of 13 deputies paid from the county’s general fund, not including detectives and sergeants.
“The county had to cut $1.3 million from the general fund this year,” Barnwell said. “Next year’s (budget) looks very bleak, according (Montcalm County Controller-Adminstrator) Chris Hyzer. By this time next year, if we face any additional cuts, as expected, we’ll have to lose another deputy. That will make it impossible for the department to continue 24/7 coverage.”
Barnwell said his goal is to maintain at least the current level of protection.
“I never thought in all my years of public service we’d have to do this,” he said.
Eureka Township Supervisor Laura Shears raised concerns on how the $1.564 million that would be raised over the next five years would be distributed. She referred to a millage approved in 2002, in which funds allegedly weren’t directed as originally intended.
“If this millage were to pass, what is to say the general fund isn’t going to cut you again?” Shears asked.
Barnwell said the additional funding can’t be redirected elsewhere in the county budget.
“This will be a dedicated millage,” he said. “Funds from the millage would go directly to maintain and increase sheriff’s coverage for the next five years. They would not go into into the general fund.”
Shears told Barnwell people must understand exactly where the money is going and how it will be used before they will approve the millage.
“People will be much more willing to vote in favor of a tax increase such as this if they know where the money is going,” she said. “If this money goes to the general fund, there’ no guarantee this money will actually be distributed for sheriff’s coverage.”
Barnwell pointed out the County Board of Commissioners has direct control over how money is spent at the county level. Shears asked Barnwell to provide a statement from the commissioner assuring that the millage will be dedicated toward sheriff’s coverage.
“You look at what’s going on today, I believe we need 24/7 coverage,” Shears said. “But if I don’t have a guarantee of where the money is going, I’m not so sure the public will be as inclined to vote in favor for the millage.”
Barnwell said he completely understands the board’s concerns and wanted to stress that his main goal is to inform the public. He also said he would speak with the Board of Commissioners about dedicating the millage proceeds.
“We’re asking people to do this at a time when everyone is facing incredible economic stress,” he said. “I’m hoping we can educate the public enough. There is a need in this county for 24/7 protection.”