Salted with Sharks

Fuzz-y Math: Has the Sheriff Made the Case for the Public Safety Millage?

In Crime, E Beach, Elsewhere in BenCo..., Law & Order, On and off the Apron, Politics, Public Safety on November 4, 2013 at 3:04 pm

By Emily Votruba

On November 5 (tomorrow), county residents will be asked to approve a funding increase for the Benzie County Sheriff’s Office. The 1.5 mill “public safety millage” will replace the jail millage (.9 mills) and is meant to allow the return of 24-hour road patrol, which proponents say is needed to “Keep Benzie Safe.”

The funding issue was raised repeatedly during both the primary and general elections in the 2012 sheriff race. While opinions vary on the need for additional financial support at the sheriff’s office, a fact remains clear: as candidate for sheriff, Ted Schendel on multiple occasions, notably during the final campaign forum held by the League of Women Voters, adamantly stated his opposition to a public safety millage. Schendel was quick to remind everyone a millage amounted to nothing more than a tax increase. So why the change of heart?

In an October 23 letter to the Record-Patriot, Sheriff Schendel wrote that after working with the county commissioners to consider “many options” to resolve the department’s financial challenges, he decided he had only two choices to provide 24-hour coverage to the county: a millage, or “(2) Sue the County for not adequately funding the Sheriff’s Office.” No breakdown of those considered and rejected options was provided, if only so we might understand what sorts of priorities we have as a county. Could funding have been found some other way? If not, why not? What we have in the paper from Schendel is a threat: “Keep Benzie Safe” by voting yes on this millage, or get sued.

Is the situation this dire? Has there been a crime surge since the election? When compared with other counties of similar size, is Benzie County understaffed with law enforcement personnel? These are important questions that should be answered before county residents vote to approve what amounts to a 60% budget increase for county law enforcement, which would place approximately $1.6 million under the direct control of the sheriff.

The county currently pays approximately $1 million out of the general fund to provide for law enforcement functions, namely road patrol, while jail operations are financed by both the jail millage and the general fund. If approved, the four-year public safety millage will finance all law enforcement functions of the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Schendel says the new millage will provide enough revenue to allow 24-7 road patrol by two deputies, a school liaison officer, new patrol vehicles, and a full-time secretary in the detective bureau. The jail millage will be eliminated and the operation of the county jail will be paid exclusively out of the general fund. Advocates of the new millage argue that the jail should be fully paid out of the general fund anyway, as maintaining a jail is one of the services the county is required to provide according to the state constitution—road patrol is not a required service. With the .9 mill jail millage gone, the 1.5 mill public safety funding amounts to a tax increase of .6 mills (or roughly an additional $60 a year for four years for a $200,000 house).

If crime in Benzie has gone up, Sheriff Schendel has not made this a big part of his case for the millage. Indeed, the premise of the millage campaign is “Keep” Benzie safe. Benzie is already safe, the campaign seems to say, but if we don’t have 24-hour patrol, it might get unsafe.… In a September 2012 interview with the Elberta Alert, Sheriff Rory Heckman said the crime rate had remained stable overall since 2011 except for an increase in illegal narcotics use (traffic accidents were down at the time). On October 19 on the Benzie Citizens for Public Safety Facebook page you could read the following exchange:

Dennis Rodzik: Could I see some crime stats for the past 5 years to justify a increase in taxes??????

Benzie Citizens for Public Safety Dennis, there was a 23.52% increase in felonies between 2009 & 2012 in Benzie County. The Sheriff’s Office has all that information on file and would be happy to provide you a copy (231-882-4484). The central point of the millage is access to service and the gain that Benzie County would have from 24 hour road patrol. Passing the millage will also ensure that we have the same hours of coverage that all of the surrounding counties enjoy.

Felonies apparently went up in the four years between 2009 and 2012, but you wouldn’t know that (or any reasons for it) from the millage campaign. Instead of claiming that a higher crime rate justifies increased expenditures, advocates of the millage rely on a vague threat of some crime-ridden future, and the idea that Benzie “deserves” 24-hour police protection just like all the surrounding counties. In addition, a strained connection is being made in the millage campaign between economic development and law enforcement protection. Those who are for the millage contend that business owners and entrepreneurs must “feel safe” before they will invest in the county. How many businesses are sitting on Benzie’s borders, wringing their hands, waiting to see whether we pass this millage or not? The campaign doesn’t tell us. A better question, also unanswered, would be: Have any businesses actually left because they felt unsafe?

In the March 27 edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Sheriff Schendel was quoted saying that in a county the size of Benzie the appropriate number of road deputies is 36. But according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the same agency cited by the sheriff in support of his claim, in 2007 sheriff’s offices in counties roughly the size of Benzie employ on average about 14 sworn police officers.* Per the 2012-2013 Benzie County budget, we had 13 sworn officers in our Sheriff’s Office. That number includes road deputies, sergeants, secondary road patrol, undersheriff and sheriff. It does not include the recent hiring of a ninth road patrolman. With that addition, we now have 14 sworn officers. The sheriff is asking for a funding increase so he can hire four or five more road patrolmen. This will bring the total number of sworn officers to 18 or 19. By national standards, in terms of population, we are on par at our current staff levels. Could those 14 officers be rescheduled to cover 24 hours?

Do more officers mean less crime? The campaign hasn’t made that case, and the facts from other localities don’t bear it out. For example, on a per capita basis, the city of Detroit has more than 5 times the number of police officers (Detroit Police, Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, Michigan State Police, FBI, and ICE) as Benzie County has and it had more murders last year than at any point in the last 40 years. The correlation between more police officers and less crime has not been substantiated.

Your vote on this millage may come down to whether you feel the need for more, and more frequent, police coverage. But there’s an additional factor to take into consideration: Placing the Sheriff Department’s entire budget under a millage, as this measure does, means that every four years we’ll have a referendum on whether or not to fund the Sheriff’s office at all. In 2017, the next sheriff will have to spend time and energy fighting for 100% of the budget within the first year of his or her term. By putting the entire budget of the sheriff’s office on a millage, the sheriff’s office is running the risk of not having a budget in the future, putting the careers of every single employee at the sheriff’s office up for grabs.

The public safety millage is a sort of extortion against the voter: either approve all of it, every four years, or get no Sheriff services at all. That shouldn’t be the choice given to the voters. The sheriff’s office can be funded up to at least a minimum level by the general fund sufficient to allow the sheriff to perform his basic duties. If the current fleet of patrol vehicles is inadequate, if reinstating a resource officer at the schools will promote a good relationship between youth and the law, if Elberta residents on either side of the beach-driving issue will have their enjoyment of the beach affected by 24-7 patrol,** let’s hear the case for those items on the Sheriff’s wish list.

If there is a need or demand for any of these items, why not put them to the voters as separate issues? As it stands, a yes vote on this prix-fixe millage sets us up for a tax increase now and a possible case of severe indigestion in 2017.

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* There were 862 sheriff’s offices in the United States that served populations between 10,000 and 24,999. The total number of sworn officers employed by those agencies was 12,167.

** Regarding patrol for Elberta Beach, Sheriff Schendel did propose last year that Elberta could pay a special contract fee to ensure increased patrol of the beach.

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