A four-man police department?

by nathan oster

With a bottom-line figure of $545,500, law enforcement would consume more than a third of the town of Greybull’s general fund spending for the new fiscal year that begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2014.

Two members of the town council, Clay Collingwood and Myles Foley, think that’s too much, and during a special meeting on May 28, they asked Police Chief Bill Brenner to prepare an alternate budget that would cut one position from the department and leave him with a force of four officers.

The council is expected to resume the discussion when it meets Monday night at Town Hall.  Among the items on the agenda that night is the third and final reading of the budget, which overall calls for $1.39 million in general fund spending and $5.45 million in total expenditures.

For fiscal year 2009, which was the first year after it was re-established, the GPD budget came in at $492,000.  In the five years since, it’s hovered between a low $521,718 (Fiscal Year 2010) and a high of $549,900 (FY 2011).

Last year, considered FY 2013, the budget for law enforcement was set at $542,700.

Brenner’s proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 represents an increase of $2,800, with all but $100 of that tied to cost-of-living adjustments that are similar to the ones the council is proposing for all town employees.  Brenner has noted in the past, as well, that his budget total for FY 2014 is skewed by a $20,000 line item for any grant money received and expended.

Collingwood initiated last week’s discussion, saying, “I’d like to see a budget option for us that included a four-policeman (department).” He also asked for numbers showing what it would cost, as a four-man department, to continue to provide 24/7 coverage as well as what it would cost if four hours were trimmed from each patrol day.

Brenner said it wouldn’t make fiscal sense, or be legal, to trim the department by one officer.  The federal Fair Labor Standards Act, he said, mandates that officers must be paid for the time they are consider “on call” or on “standby.”

“So you’d still have to pay for 24-hour coverage,” he said.

When asked by Collingwood how other towns, such as Basin, can pull it off, Brenner stated that towns around the state, including Basin are setting themselves up for a lawsuit by not paying officers for their “on call” time.

Brenner elaborated in a follow-up interview that that point was the foundation of a lawsuit filed against the county several years ago by a group of deputies.  Brenner himself was one of those deputies. They sought $4.2 million in damages and eventually settled for $170,000. But it was the principal that they were fighting for, Brenner said, and in the end, he feels they were vindicated.

At the May 28 discussion, Brenner asked why Collingwood wanted to cut his budget.

“Cost savings, Bill,” said Collingwood.

“Cost savings?” Brenner countered. “You’ve been talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in (overall town) spending all night long … this is a service to the community that you would be cutting.”

Foley supported Collingwood’s request. “I don’t think we’d be hurting our community if we cut back on our budget a little bit,” he said. “I think our budget is awful steep in terms of our police department.”

Brenner initially stated that he “didn’t think he could” prepare a budget for a four-man department, saying it would be, in his opinion, a “huge mistake.”  But he later agreed to do so, largely at the urging of Councilor Bob McGuire.

“The problem Bill, is that it’s not up to you,” said McGuire. “If the council asks you for a budget, whether you agree with it or not, you need to do your best to provide that information to the council.”

After Brenner agreed to the request, the topic shifted to timing — and whether it could be accomplished in time for the council to consider it when the budget comes up for third reading on Monday, June 10.

Councilor Ross Jorgensen, who is the town’s police commissioner, said he’s willing to look at the different options. “But I don’t want to make a kneejerk reaction to anything because things tend to go when that way,” he said.

McGuire said he wants to hear from the people of Greybull about whether they would support a reduction in police services.  He cited the swimming pool as an example, saying that even though he was solidly against building a new pool, he supported measures to put the pool tax questions on the ballot.  Spending on law enforcement — and in particular, the idea of cutting back on coverage — is an equally big issue that the whole community needs to decide.

Foley also questioned the $3,000 line item in the police budget for a new paint job on the reserve police car.  He said he’d like the current car, which is white, touched up and not painted black, like the other five cars used by officers.

Shifting gears again, Jorgensen said he appreciated of the police budget’s proposed bottom line being only $2,800 more than last year.  After the cost-of-living adjustments are factored in, the increase actually comes closer to $100.

“To basically hold the line, compared to what all the other departments are looking at … I just want you to know I did take notice of that,” Jorgensen told Brenner.

Mayor Bob Graham said he, too, is willing to look at the different options, but added, “I’m not wanting to cut 24-hour service.  I think the emergency, first responders need 24-hour service from our police.”

Graham also pointed out that the town is currently spending a lot of money to put its current fifth police officer, Sean Alquist, through the police academy.

McGuire, who is a sheriff’s deputy, said he, like Brenner, recognizes that “a lot of things are taking place that are setting the parameters for law enforcement” with respect to the way that they are paid and perform their jobs.

“Hot Springs County has been sued twice and lost both times,” he said, adding that the nature of the job requires that law enforcement personnel be treated differently than typically 9-to-5 employees who can call it a day at the end of their shift.  Police officers cannot always do that, he said.