Anger and agony over proposal to close Horseshoe Bend Police Department

Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Horseshoe Bend residents lined up to speak at a July 8 meeting, after hearing Izard County Sheriff Tate Lawrence outline his proposal to provide police protection to the city for $240,000 a year. Most speakers opposed shutting down the city's police department, saying other solutions can be found to deal with a growing budget deficit. Photo Richard Irby

When the Horseshoe Bend City Council Finance Committee met on Monday, July 8 to discuss hiring the Izard County Sheriff's Department to take over the city's law enforcement, Councilwoman Vickie West said, after talking to many residents, "We have a town divided ,and that is not good."

The day following the meeting, Councilman James Davis, who opposes closing the police department, and David Huff, who favors it, met at a pool tournament where their discussion of the issue led to an argument in which Davis allegedly struck Huff in the face. Both were arrested by the Izard County Sheriff's Department for Disorderly Conduct.

The divide over the police department's future was also on display at the July 8 meeting.

City Clerk-Treasurer Michelle Grabowski's financial report illustrated why closing the city police department was being considered.

The city's deficit budget had grown from $49,000 in May to $55,000 in June.

"We are $55,000 into our savings for [the first] six months. We've got to cut," Mayor Bob Barnes told citizens crammed into the council chambers, and others standing in the hallway. "Your city has $493,450 [in reserve]. At the rate we're heading, it's an $110,000 deficit this year, so you've got four years before the city faces serious financial trouble. I believe we need to be proactive; correct it while we can."

"Should the city council desire these services from the sheriff's department, Izard County will provide the full public safety services for the municipality," Izard County Sheriff Tate Lawrence said as he described his proposal. The Horseshoe Bend Police Department's vehicles and police related equipment would be turned over to the Izard County Department, and Lawrence would hire the police department's four officers to provide coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The charge for a contract through December of 2014 would be $20,000 a month, or $240,000 a year.

Since Horseshoe Bend has budgeted $306,000 this year to operate its police department, Councilwoman West said, "Replacing the police department gives an immediate savings of $80,000 to $90,000 this year, and $65,000 to $85,000 in succeeding years." West admitted, however, many citizens she has spoken to are opposed to the change, saying, "There's a fear that police protection would diminish over time, and there's concern that costs would escalate out of control in the future."

West proposed protecting the city by putting additional language in a contract with the sheriff's department to specify that the city will always have an officer on duty and, if the officer has to be sent to another part of the county in a case of extreme emergency, the city will be notified of the incident in a "report for cause." West also called for contract language that would limit the amount the sheriff's department can raise its rate when a new contract is negotiated.

West said the city's deficit cannot be ignored and will be difficult to reverse, as the city's population is decreasing and there are fewer businesses, so less property tax and sales tax is being collected.

When the meeting was opened to public comment, 19 citizens gave their opinion. Only two endorsed the proposal to hire the Izard County Sheriff's Department, while 17 others expressed mild to strong opposition.

Jack Downing, a long-time Horseshoe Bend resident who was formerly the Izard County Drug Court supervisor, supported the change of law enforcement by saying, "We've got an awful drug problem in this town. The Chief last month, he had a whopping three reports on drugs. I could find that many a day. We've got a problem and it's got to be taken care of, and I know the Sheriff's Department is trained -- better trained in drug problems."

David Huff also criticized the Police Department for a lack of action on drug problems. "Tate will clean up this town," Huff said, pointing at Sheriff Lawrence.

David Seibert followed with strong opposition. "Getting rid of the police department is kind of foolish. When I came here 12 years ago, it was on the idea that we had amenities like a police department and a fire department. We're getting older and older -- we need to know the police department is going to be there for us."

Cliff Summey praised the police department for helping him and others over the years. "I, myself, have dropped my motorcycle and had a cop help me pick it up. I locked the door [to my house] and had the police help me unlock it. To get rid of the police department is one of the worst things we can do to go forward. We've made absolutely no discussion whatsoever on what other cuts we are going to make."

Former Police Chief Fred Mitchell, Sr., urged the council not to make a rash decision. "We've been short of funds before, but we go forward. The economy is picking up now. It's going to get better...any system that we change to is going to be less than what we've got now. We've got a well equipped, well staffed, well served police department here."

Marge Burge, a 28 year resident, agreed. "I feel safe here. The idea of losing the police department scares me. I don't feel reassured we'll have the coverage you say [through the sheriff's department]."

Other speakers called on citizens to band together, and for the city to form a committee of citizens, retirees with backgrounds in business and financial management, to help it bring spending under control.

Gerri Lewis received applause for an offer few taxpayers ever make. "Whatever it takes, all of us care enough about our police department, our fire department, that we'll do it, even if it takes a tax increase."

During the meeting, Mayor Barnes supported Councilwoman West's proposals to get guaranteed 24 hour police coverage, and a limit on future increases in what the city would pay for protection.

"I think for anything to work, there's got to be trust on both sides. There's got to be cooperation on both sides," Lawrence said. "I'll be glad to work with the city. I think we could work out things like that without any problem there."

Sheriff Lawrence noted that his department had provided police coverage for Melbourne for years -- two plus officers for the current price of $144,000 a year. Lawrence noted that, last year, Melbourne was having financial problems and could not pay the full cost of coverage, so the price was scaled back for that year.

After the discussion wound down, the Finance Committee voted 6 to 3 to defer a final decision on shutting down the police department to the council meeting on Monday, July 22.

In her comments, Councilwoman West described what a tough time the council and the city as a whole is having as it struggles with the decision. "Be supportive of whatever comes down," West urged citizens. "We are a town divided way too much. I'm sure other members of the city council feel as I do when I say, I have lost sleep. I've lost friends, and I've lost heart wrestling with this decision. We need your prayers, not your condemnation."

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