As of midnight June 25 Highland Police Chief Fred Waser and Highland Police Officer Hank Harris were out of a job. The Highland City Council voted 5-1 to lay off the two men and create a new police department with only one employee.
Highland Police Officer Bea Sharp, who was working part time, was hired as the interim police chief until applications can be solicited and candidates interviewed.
According to the Highland City Council, the city does not have the necessary funds to continue to operate a police department. Council members said revenue had been overestimated and expenses underestimated. The city currently has a COPS grant that is assisting with the salary of the officers; however, the grant continues to pay less each year over the course of three years until it is eliminated after the third year.
Council members explained the city would be required to pay back the grant money they had received if they dissolved the police department; therefore, the longer the police department continued to operate the more money the city would be required to reimburse for the grant. The council said it was for this reason they were taking such fast action.
The council also said based on the financial condition of the city it appeared the city would be unable to fully fund the police department after the COPS grant runs out even if they managed to remain operational with the grant. The city has received over $47,000 to date from the COPS grant. Negotiations are in the process to determine how much will have to be repaid.
Councilman David Harris presented the proposal to the board that would eliminate the entire police department and restructure it. The proposal stated the chief of police position would be eliminated at the current salary of $24,700 and recreated with a salary of $18,720.
Waser was offered the new position but declined, stating he did not want to take the decrease in salary. Sharp was then offered the interim chief of police position and she accepted it.
The proposal called for two of the three police vehicles to be auctioned or sold, keeping the best vehicle as a reserve vehicle and leasing or purchasing a new vehicle with a warranty for repairs. It also stated the city would pay off the current COPS grant, along with any penalty required.
Councilmen David Harris, Bill Frolow, Danny Taylor, Jerrie Johnson and Denise Gibbons voted in favor of the motion. Councilman Danny Grant left the meeting prior to the vote and Taryn Duncan was not present.
Councilwoman Vicki Brink was the dissenting vote even though she expressed support of the motion as it was being discussed. "We're trying to do the right thing; we just don't know what the right thing is," Brink said. She said she was voting against the proposal because she wanted more time to consider it.
The proposal stated Waser would be given a complimentary letter of recommendation if he resigned.
"The only thing I see wrong with it is I'm not resigning," Waser said. "You're going to have to lay me off or terminate my job. You're doing away with the position for $24,700 and creating another for $18,700. Other than that I think David (Harris) did a great job of putting it together. We need to continue on and make the city as safe as we can and stay within our budget."
The council agreed to lay off Waser and Harris so they would be eligible for unemployment benefits until they secured other employment.
Harris said he had applied for another job but expected to draw unemployment until he was officially employed. Waser said he was eligible for two weeks vacation and intended to spend more time with his wife and mother before seeking alternative employment. Waser and Harris turned in their equipment and vehicles to the city the day following the meeting, along with time sheets and demands for reimbursement.
A special city council meeting was called Saturday morning to discuss the officer's demands. Waser requested payment for 50 hours of work. The council agreed to pay him the 10 hours overtime even though they said as a salaried employee he was not eligible for overtime. He also requested payment for money he had spent washing his police vehicle. The council said $130 per year was budgeted for car washes and agreed to pay Waser and Harris each one-half of the budgeted amount. Harris requested payment for three holidays, two weeks vacation and three additional weeks of vacation pay for this year. The council agreed to pay him for the holidays and the two weeks vacation for last year but said his official date of employment was July 9, 2001. Because he had been employed for less than one year the council did not agree to the additional three weeks of vacation pay.
Sharp said she expects to work mostly days and will patrol the school zone and do as much traffic control on the highway as possible. The council said they would rely upon the sheriff's department to provide additional police coverage for the city.
Sharp County Sheriff T.J. "Sonny" Powell said he was "disappointed" at the council's decision regarding the police department. "I want the residents of Highland to know we will do our very best with the means we have available to provide police coverage to the city," Powell said. He said county budget restrictions resulted in a decrease of two deputies this year. When the city of Highland incorporated state turnback money from sales tax was redirected from the county to the city. He said the county would now bear the burden of providing police coverage without the revenue to support it.