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McCleary Police levy issue ‘has torn our community apart’

Steven Friederich | The Vidette McCleary Police Chief George Crumb speaks to a crowd of about 100 people about the impacts not passing the police levy could have on his department.Buy Photo
Steven Friederich | The Vidette McCleary Police Chief George Crumb speaks to a crowd of about 100 people about the impacts not passing the police levy could have on his department.

A forum in McCleary on July 17 drew about 100 people to discuss the future of police protection in McCleary and whether residents should support property tax hikes on the August ballot.

Pauline Martin, who is chairwoman of the McCleary Chamber of Commerce, said that the police levy issue “has torn our community apart.”

“I think we’ve lost enough — our bar, our hospital, our bank,” Martin said. “There’s rumors we’ll lose our museum, our library. We need to figure out a way to succeed. We need to work together. We don’t want to lose anymore. This should be more like a family than a city.”

At times, the forum devolved into arguments batted about across the room between McCleary Mayor Gary Dent and two council members pushing for the city to contract services with the Sheriff’s Office. Two hours into the two-and-a-half-hour forum, Dent left — but speakers continued to criticize his choices during the past budget year.

In fact, Dent was being hit across two sides — for laying off a police officer from those who support the current police force and for allegedly hampering efforts by council members looking into contracting services with the Sheriff’s Office.

“There’s property down here that was purchased; when the fire department needed a new roof on the fire hall that came out of current expense, so how do we pay those bills? Let’s lay off an officer,” Police Chief George Crumb said. ” … I’m just saying that’s a city problem and now the police department is taking the full brunt of it so why doesn’t the city balance the budget without hacking us? We’ve already lost one person and I’m looking at losing more and I lost my clerk. So why am I always the focus while everyone else is fat?”

Jenny Reed, a retired police clerk for the city, noted that people’s anger at the city shouldn’t drive them to vote against the police department.

“Do you want to have that anger impact public safety?” she said.

“Don’t let fear control your vote, either,” Councilman Jeff Catterlin countered.

DEBATE

At the start of the forum, a moderator invited Dent and the council to step forward and sit at a table. Only Council members Catterlin and Brent Schiller took seats. Two other council members and Mayor Dent chose to stay in the audience.

“I’m just hear to listen,” Dent said at the start of the forum.

But a half hour into the forum, as the criticism heated up, the mayor started talking back from the audience.

“For many years, money was taken out of utility reserve accounts, namely light and power to shore up the current expense fund for the shortfalls,” Catterlin said. “I have been in contact with the state Auditor’s Office a dozen times and I can tell you there won’t be any more money coming out of utility funds. It’s not going to happen anymore. It is against the law. And I’ll bring a bus load of auditors down here if I have to. It is irresponsible. And it’s not going to happen.”

“That’s not true,” Dent fired back. “It’s just not. Not true. Not true.”

“Right now, the way this mayor’s budget is, there’s no money to work with,” Catterlin added later.

“I believe you voted for it,” Dent said.

“I won’t again, I’ll tell you that,” Catterlin said. “… If you constantly have too much in utility funds that you’re surplusing that means you’re paying too high of rates and that’s against state law.”

“The city attorney says it’s OK,” Dent said. “Ask him. Ask him.”

“That’s not saying a lot,” Catterlin rebutted.

DIVISIVE

The divisiveness between Dent and Catterlin was reflective of the way the forum went.

The city is currently paying $470,000 for its three-officer department, providing 118 hours of police protection. Councilman Schiller noted that a third of those hours are spent on paperwork and administrative issues, especially in the wake of the police clerk being laid off. Add in the $63,000 the city pays for retired police pensions and the costs add up to $533,000. If the city were to pass Proposition 1, which needs a super majority, then it would cover a potential shortfall in next year’s budget of $110,000. If the city just passes Proposition 2, then there’s still a $50,000 shortfall.

Sheriff Rick Scott gave a “ballpark estimate” to the city that 40 hours of dedicated, on-the-street coverage would cost between $150,000 to $200,000. More ground coverage would cost more money. This would be the time when deputies are visible at random times within the city limits. Deputies would still respond on call at all hours of the day or night. The county also has its own administrative staff to handle the paperwork angle.

Add in the $63,000 pension coverage the city would still need to pay and the city could save $270,000 per year.

“I want McCleary to survive,” Catterlin said. “We can’t keep spending more money than we’re bringing in. If Proposition 2 passes, we’re still $50,000 short. We currently have a police force we cannot afford.”

“We’re losing money and we’ve been losing it for four years now,” Schiller said.

“We’re spending way too much money,” McCleary resident Jeff Foster told the audience.

“Emotions don’t balance a budget,” added Joy Iversen. “We can’t pay more and more in taxes. … I love this town, but it’s finally come time to pay the piper.”

Derek Vaughn says he sells wastewater treatment equipment around the country and has seen poor infrastructure.

“I saw a town in California that couldn’t weld the pipes fast enough as sewage flew into the street,” Vaughn said. “That’s something I don’t want to see happen here and I feel step one is trying to balance the budget. You can’t run in the red. Nobody can run in the red and survive this. Look at any business. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Do any of these local police officers vote here?” mused Kathy Elofson. “No, because this city isn’t good enough for them to live in.”

DRUG ISSUES?

Chief George Crumb told the audience that he was proud of the job of his two officers and disappointed he was forced to lay off a police clerk and a third officer. He said the city responds to its fair share of drug calls, mostly for heroin and meth. But it’s not an “over abundance.”

“I see drug transactions all the time,” one man noted during the forum. “I report them all the time and see nothing.”

“I can count three or four drug houses on Pine Street,” added another resident, Cody Sample. “I am finding needles in my yard for the first time. … When are we going to look like Malone and Porter? Because we’re going to go bankrupt. Let’s treat McCleary like a small town, not like Seattle.”

“I’m tired of drugs in this town. I can sit in my yard and see it all day long,” said Gary Atkins. “The cops are never around. … So, I am totally against the police department and totally for the Sheriff’s Department.”

Martin, who also owns the local Subway, noted that one of her employees found heroin needles in the bathroom and reported it to the police. An officer came within 10 minutes or so and disposed of the needles.

“I don’t know if a county deputy would do that,” Martin said. “I want to say thank you.”

“A lot of people don’t know how hazardous syringes can be,” the chief added.

“Anybody who votes no on this levy doesn’t care about anybody else,” Councilman Tom Reed told the public. “I’ve been told I have a way about me that I’m a little too quiet about the city. But that’s just the way I learn. … Anybody who votes no is asking for trouble. I’d vote ‘yes.’”

Susan Carroll of McCleary says she’s worried about response times. Carroll cited the response times when a McCleary woman went missing on May 28. A McCleary Police officer was able to respond in less than three minutes when it took a deputy 53 minutes to respond.

“When someone goes missing, every minute counts,” Carroll said.

Catterlin pointed out that when the deputy did respond, though, a command center was eventually set up and numerous deputies and a county search team were deployed to find the woman. He noted that the city typically hands over larger cases to the Sheriff’s Office to handle because the county has more deputies and more resources than McCleary. When Lindsey Baum vanished five years ago, for instance, the case was handed to detectives with the Sheriff’s Office, who continued to work on the case today.

DENT

Catterlin says that the mayor is using “scare tactics” to make people think that local police could handle a school shooting or other major incident better than the Sheriff’s Office. A mailer paid for by the mayor references the danger the city may face if there was a school shooting and the McCleary Police weren’t present to handle the call.

“Scare tactics, that’s what Gary Dent does,” Catterlin said. “When he was a teacher it was based on fear in the classroom. Everything he does is based on fear. None of our police officers have been through formal, advanced active shooter training to deal with an active shooter at a school or anywhere else. And a lack of training can cause more harm than good. The majority of Sheriff’s deputies have had this training.”

“It seems the problem starts with Gary Dent and works its way down,” Atkins added.

Council members Catterlin, Schiller, Reed and Larry Peterson each told the crowd that the mayor had presented a “take it or leave it” budget last fall after he had won his election. The budget was $110,000 and relied on reserves and transfers.

“I think Tom, Larry, Brent and I would all like to sit down and work on some solutions,” Catterlin said. “But that has never happened.”

Former McCleary mayor Wallace Bentley said, “Perhaps the council should participate more on what is presented and how it’s formulated. You guys pass the budget. He doesn’t. He presents it. You pass it. You have control.”

All four council members nodded in agreement.

“There’s one person you need to agree to that and he walked out,” Catterlin said of Dent. “… He has threatened to close government. Well, you know what, if the mayor is going to be that way, go ahead and shut it down.”

SHERIFF

Besides McCleary, the cities of Cosmopolis, Westport and Elma have all started talks about whether it may make sense to contract services with the Sheriff’s Office. Cosi and Westport officials have said they’re sticking with their local departments. Elma city officials are still on the fence and will meet with the sheriff later this month, Scott said.

At this point, the city of Oakville is the only city to contract services with the sheriff, paying $110,000 for 40 hours of guaranteed coverage.

Former Oakville Mayor Buck Meile told the audience that the Sheriff’s Office is currently training six deputies and can barely make the 40 hours the city is paying for a deputy to patrol the city. He noted he has gas stolen from his home and waited 45 minutes for a deputy to arrive. He says if he were mayor, he’d be pushing to bring back a local police department.

“They’ve done their best, but I can tell you we’re a longer distance away than McCleary,” Meile said.

Current Oakville Mayor Thomas Sims had nothing but nice things to say about the Sheriff’s Office this past May in an interview, noting that the city has been saving $200,000 annually since the contracted change.

Scott told The Vidette that there’s deputies out being trained right now, but he’s paying overtime costs to ensure that Oakville and other areas of the county continue to be served. Scott has hope that service will return to normal in a few months.

“We just had a lot of retirements all at once,” Scott said. “And we’ve had a few deputies out on leave.”

Sheriff Scott told The Vidette he’s not actively looking to take jobs away from municipalities. City officials are coming to him.

“They’re good people in McCleary,” Scott said.

Catterlin said the city should save three police cars, store them and try using the Sheriff’s Office for a year. He said a three-year contract that gives the city an “out” after one year may be possible.

Chief Crumb took aim at residents who said his officers were making too much money, noting that his own salary and benefits costs the city $112,000 and his officers cost $98,000 each. That doesn’t include overtime, Catterlin pointed out.

“The utility clerk position you’re advertising for right now makes more than me,” Officer Randy Bunch told the crowd.