BUCKHANNON — What began as a simple budget session for the Buckhannon Police Department turned into a debate about the BPD’s relationship with the community.
A special meeting took place Tuesday, Feb. 21, so police chief Matt Gregory’s could present funding requests for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
Gregory highlighted his request for a total of $492,308 for salaries. The figure is higher than this year because Gregory is hoping to hire two part-time officers thanks to Buckhannon’s Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program. Each officer would not work more than an average of 20 hours a week at a rate of $16.87 per hour, equaling an annual salary of $17,545 for each part-time position.
The police chief said the part-time officers were important for increased safety. The BPD currently employs 10 full-time officers, the Upshur County Sheriff’s Department has an additional 12 officers, and about five troopers are stationed at the Buckhannon detachment of the W.Va. State Police.
Councilman CJ Rylands questioned whether the cost to the city to hire the two officers was “absolutely necessary.”
Gregory replied, “I try to avoid having officers work by themselves. That is not advisable to have an officer go to an active domestic by themselves. Those are some of the most dangerous situations. We’ve had two officers shot in the line of duty within the last 15 years.”
“So yes, I feel that part-time officers are absolutely necessary,” the police chief continued. “I think they should be full time to be quite honest with you. We only have nine road officers because Mark Stewart is a PRO officer (working at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School). It will allow us to fill those gaps where officers are working alone; our workload has been increasing over the past 15 years.”
Rylands replied, “I understand the emotional plea that you’re making, but I don’t agree that there’s more crime. There may be more calls for your services.”
Gregory agreed that he didn’t think the police department’s increasing workload could be equated simply to crime.
“There are other things like hit-and-runs, and workload can include things like dealing with more stray dogs in the city,” the police chief said. “Council has passed more ordinances that require us to do more than what we were doing before the creation of these ordinances. We also had 100 more 911 calls this year than there were last year.”
The discussion then turned to grant funding as a possible incentive for BPD officers to write more tickets. The police department is expected to receive a total of $38,000 in grant funding for the 2017-2018 fiscal year; $15,000 of that is a Commission on Drunk Driving Prevention grant, $19,000 stems from the Governor’s Highway Safety Grant and $4,000 is the Violence Against Women domestic violence grant.
Gregory mentioned that while veteran officers use more discretion when deciding whether or not to ticket individuals, about half the traffic tickets the police department gives out are written by one newer officer — Patrolman Joshua Wilson.
Rylands said writing excessive tickets is counter to what the BPD is trying to accomplish as far as its relationship with the community.
“We’re looking to connect with the community with trust and cohesion, and ticketing doesn’t really build trust and cohesion,” Rylands said. “It’s not behaving in alignment with what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Gregory responded, “You’re preaching to the choir. I know that if I work with somebody and I develop a rapport with them, you get a lot more with honey than with vinegar. Ticket writing is a phenomenon that’s relegated to new guys. You want to turn the lights on and you want to save the world. The vast majority of my [officers] appreciate that you get more with honey than with vinegar.”
Rylands said, “Isn’t it your job as a supervisor to communicate those expectations?”
Gregory answered, “I’ve tried. Trust me, you’re preaching to the choir. How do you suggest I go about doing that?”
Councilman Dave Thomas interjected, “This whole conversation is very unsettling to me,” to which Rylands replied, “The truth never screwed anything up.”
Gregory said it’s an unwritten rule that police officers don’t pull people over for speeding unless they’re going more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.
However, Rylands persisted.
“But if one of your officers do it, you’re all doing it from a community perspective,” he said.
City recorder Susan Aloi also questioned Gregory’s motivation for seeking grants that are likely to encourage officers to write tickets.
“If all of these grants are to pay for overtime for officers to write tickets, the budget is a numeric visualization of your priorities,” she said. “Why would you be seeking funding for something you don’t philosophically agree with? I mean, the extra ticketing.”
Gregory said he “whole-heartedly” believed in the domestic violence grant and especially the DUI grant.
“We have seen tragedy first-hand in this community come from drunk driving,” he said.
Councilman David Thomas said the police department should be monitoring the roads for drunk drivers regardless of whether or not it receives grants to do so.
Mayor David McCauley steered the conversation back to the issue at hand — Gregory’s major line item budget requests, which included the addition of two part-time officers at a total of $35,090 and three new 2018 model police cruisers at an approximate cost of $38,000. Overall, the budget request is $1,110,161, which is $98,961 more than the 2016-2017 fiscal year’s budget. Gregory budgeted $56,598 in overtime for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
McCauley asked Gregory about the rationale for the take-home cruiser program, meaning the officer drives his or her cruiser to and from work.
“What are the benefits of having a take-home cruiser program?” McCauley wanted to know.
Gregory said it hastens response time when back-up is needed.
“If an officer gets in trouble on their shift and we don’t have immediate back-up, the next thing we have to do is call an officer from home to come help us,” the police chief said. “If an officer doesn’t have a cruiser at home to come out, the officer has to drive to the station and get the cruiser, which increases response time. Plus, there’s better security on the cars in the driveway of my house [than in the parking lot of the Public Safety Complex].”
McCauley suggested council consider eradicating the take-home cruiser program.
“If we were to revisit our philosophy, if we say, look, here’s the vehicle that’s assigned to you, we would save on wear and tear and gasoline,” the mayor said. “I’m not suggesting we make that call today. Between now and next fiscal year, it’s a discussion that we should be having organizationally.”
Gregory asked if McCauley thought it would be appropriate for supervisors to drive their cruisers to and from work.
McCauley replied, “I think a supervisor is a little bit different. But if we cut that program with regular police officers, we would save tens of thousands of dollars a year and we could reintegrate those saved dollars back into the manpower that you’re asking for.”
However, Gregory emphasized that having a take-home car is a “perk” of working for the BPD.
“One of the things that is absolutely painful for me is to see a revolving door, to see someone leave,” he said. “Part of what you do to avoid turnover is to make the place of employment more attractive. Having a take-home cruiser is a perk.”
McCauley said that cutting the take-home cruiser program would pay for at least one part-time police officer.
“Instead of being a sheep, maybe for once, Buckhannon could consider being a shepherd,” the mayor said. “I’d like us to think outside the box and push our envelope out there.”
Council also consulted with city fire chief Jim Townsend about his proposed 2017-2018 budget for the Buckhannon Fire Department.
Townsend said his proposed budget was “basically a maintenance budget with slight increases for inflation.”
Councilman Robbie Skinner suggested that the city implement a fire fee for the BFD’s first due area.
Townsend said he would also like to eventually expand the fire department from six paid firefighters to nine paid firefighters and develop a five-year strategic plan.
“For next year, we don’t have any big capital projects,” Townsend said. Townsend did ask for funding for increased training — as well as more money in the capital outlay fund for turnout gear, breathing apparatuses and possibly replacing thermal imaging cameras and hoses.
Overall, the BFD’s proposed budget totaled $692,050. Although Townsend did not specifically break out funding requested for overtime according to administrative and financial director Amberle Jenkins, fire department overtime usually adds up to around $150,000, she said.
General budget discussions continued Monday. Look for an article about that meeting in an upcoming edition of The Record Delta.