The Stevensville Town Council, after rejecting a proposal to disband the police department and contract with the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services, decided to place a $200,000 levy on the November ballot that would boost the funding for the department to a point that it can provide services 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Police Department hit a real low recently with the departure of two officers, leaving Police Chief James Marble as the only officer on board. Even with the two officers, the town is currently left without a local police presence for two 24-hour periods every week and at least a portion of every night. The Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office responds to calls in the town when no local law enforcement is available.
At the urging of Council President Bob Michalson, a contingent of Town officials met with the Sheriff to consider the option of contracting services and get some idea of what the contract might cost. According to Mayor Brandon Dewey, one thing that clearly emerged from that discussion was that the current situation is unsustainable. Sheriff Steve Holton said that his officers were responding to about 87% of the dispatch calls that come in from the Town of Stevensville.
“Right now, we are providing it, but this is not a solution by any means,” he told the council at the June 25 meeting. “This is a model that we cannot sustain.” Holton said that the Sheriff’s Office was willing to consider contracting with the town to provide a dedicated officer to the area including the town and surrounding area including Florence on a 24/7 basis. It would mean hiring three new deputies and come to a total cost of about $270,000 per year.
County Commissioner Greg Chilcott cautioned that the $270,000 figure was at a “subsidized rate.”
Stevensville Police Chief James Marble estimated that it would take six officers, when sick leave and vacation time was included, to cover the town full time. He said with a full-time clerk the cost would total $400,00 to $500,000 annually. The cost of running the department as is, with a clerk, a chief and two officers, would be about $240,000.
The potential contract was complicated by several factors. It would mean the dissolution of the Town Court and all tickets would be handled by the county justice system. Holton said that the Justice Courts and the County Attorney’s Office were willing to participate in the contract without any increased compensation for increased work-loads and see how the program worked. Holton also stated that he would prefer a five-year contract since the deal required hiring three new employees. Any shorter contract could make it difficult to find good applicants for the job, he said.
Stevensville resident Conrad Eckert said it just didn’t make sense to get rid of two and half officers in town for one officer covering everyone from Stevensville to Florence.
When council president Bob Michalson made a motion to contract with the county for law enforcement services, County Commissioner Greg Chilcott suggested that, since so many questions remained and no details had yet been worked out, the motion should be to engage in negotiations with the county that could lead to the production of a contract that would be acceptable to both the Town and the County.
“I think we need to define our expectations and the contract provisions before agreeing to one,” said Chilcott.
Michalson retracted his motion and moved to table the issue and continue forward with negotiations.
Mayor Dewey noted that the motion, as stated, actually included two motions, one to table the issue and the other to continue negotiations.
“How about a motion to move forward with negotiating a contract for services with the Sheriff’s Office?” said the Mayor.
“So moved,” said Michalson.
In discussion, Mayor Dewey said that he had some concerns about the option if it should not work out. He said once disbanded the cost of re-instating a local police department would be extreme.
“I would prefer to exhaust all other options first,” said the mayor. “What I’m hearing tonight is that the Police Department is important and people want to keep it.”
Council member Stacie Barker said she thought it was important to keep the police and that “as a town I think we can come together and make it work.” Council member Robin Holcomb agreed, stating that she has always been an avid supporter of the Police Department.
The motion to go forward with negotiations for contracting with the Sheriff’s Office was defeated unanimously.
With that settled, the Council moved on to consider a proposed mill levy to support an additional two officers for the town, bringing the total to five officers (including the Chief). Mayor Dewey said that in his opinion the cost of two additional officers would come to about $200,000 annually. He provided the results of an “exercise” in which he analyzed the cost to taxpayers based on the market value of a home. According to those calculations, the $200,000 levy would generate 77.6 mills increasing the property taxes on a home valued at $50,000 by $52.08; a home valued at $100,000 would see an increase of $104.17; and a home worth $200,000 would pay an additional $208.34.
Former town clerk Nancy Lowell said that she was against the mill levy. She said the town got along very well without one for the last 60 years.
“There comes a time when you have to just quit your spending,” she said.
Chief Marble said that it would be impossible to train more than one officer at a time, making it impossible to hire four new officers at once. As a result, he said, a progressive levy could be implemented over time and bring the police force up to a full staff at the end of a certain period of time, depending on whether new officers need schooling or not.
“Lateral hires of people with training can cut that time considerably,” he said. Marble also stated that it would be imperative to engage the community and educate them about the current status of the department and the needs if they are going to supply the services 24/7.
“I know what it takes. I’ve been at this for years,” he said. “I know what the calls for service are. I know how much time it takes to do a felony investigation and how much time it takes to handle a misdemeanor investigation. We’ve got to be able to let the public know what we are up against and what it will take. I think they’ll understand it.”
Mayor Dewey said that he thought it was time that the community decides if it is going to support full time police protection or not.
The Council was split over the issue, with Barker and Michalson voting to place the levy on the ballot and council members Holcomb and Raymond Smith voting against it. Mayor Dewey said that he believed that it was important for the public to get involved in the issue and find out what they really want. He broke the tie in favor of running the levy, stating that if it turned out that the levy was not being supported publicly, there would be time to back off and cancel the levy before the deadline to place it on the ballot.
In other business, the Council unanimously approved a request from the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority (RCEDA) to approve a grant application for $200,000 from the Big Sky Trust Fund to facilitate the purchase of Selway Corporation by a Nevada, Washington based company named Transco. Transco will match the grant with $200,000.
According to RCEDA Executive Director Julie Foster, Big Sky Trust Fund money is available for the purpose of creating good paying jobs and for workforce development and for relocation expenses as well as equipment, wages, materials and employee training.
Foster described Transco as a light industrial manufacturer that provides services for bulk material handling, agricultural machinery and water technology. She said the company plans on hiring 40 employees over two years. The jobs would be full time at 35 hours per week with a starting wage of $16.70 per hour. The $200,000 grant would be divided with $95,000 going into purchase of the facility, $95,000 going into equipment modification and $10,000 going to administration. Foster noted that there will be no cost to the town.
The Council approved making the Police Records Clerk a full-time position on a vote of 3 to 1 with Michalson casting the dissenting vote.
After admonishing the Mayor for creating a new position and establishing a wage for it without Council approval, it was clarified that the position was not new but had simply not been filled. The Council voted 3 to 1 to approve the wage for the position with Michalson casting the dissenting vote.
The position description for the Public Works Assistant was then approved unanimously.
The Council also approved a traffic study at the intersections of Church, College and Pine Streets with Second Street where the installation of stop signs had been requested.