Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 18, 2013

Patrol cuts possible for GT sheriff

BY MICHAEL WALTON mwalton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Proposed budget cuts in Grand Traverse County could mean fewer deputies on the road.

Grand Traverse County Administrator Dave Benda handed county commissioners a list of potential budget cuts totaling more than $1 million during a committee meeting Wednesday. Benda’s proposed cuts include eliminating a captain from the sheriff’s detective division, along with a lieutenant, a sergeant and five deputies from the road patrol division, according to county documents obtained by the Record-Eagle.

Sheriff Tom Bensley isn’t happy about the proposed cuts.

“For a long time, the county board has said that public safety is a priority,” Bensley said. “Apparently that’s fallen on deaf ears in the administrator’s office.”

County officials are grappling with a $1.5 million deficit as they piece together a 2014 budget. Benda has proposed reducing that number by $500,000 through employee wage and benefit changes, with another $1 million in reductions coming from programming and personnel cuts, county records show.

The potential sheriff’s department cuts total more than $600,000, half of which would come from axing five road patrol deputy positions.

Benda said deputy road patrols are the single most expensive county service not mandated by state law.

“When I look at the budget and the things we can cut, we have a very short list of non-mandated expenses,” Benda said. “The sheriff’s department is most of that list.”

The sheriff’s department employs 66 certified police officers, Bensley said. Roughly 18 of them are “community policing officers” whose salaries are paid by the county’s townships.

There are 24 county-paid deputies responsible for road patrols. They do the bulk of the department’s “heavy-lifting,” said Bensley, who added it’s too early to tell how Benda’s proposed cuts would impact public safety.

“All we can do now is speculate,” Bensley said.

Bensley said Thursday afternoon he had not yet discussed the proposed cuts with Benda, but he said the sheriff’s department has had a “target on our back” since the budget process started this summer.

“We know Mr. Benda has said we have too many police officers,” Bensley said.

Benda said Grand Traverse County does have a high number of deputies on patrol routes compared to counties with similar population sizes and crime rates.

County Commissioner Dan Lathrop said Benda’s suggested cuts put too much pressure on the sheriff’s department.

“Maybe some of the cuts can be done there, but I think there are other places we can cut and maybe not effect health, safety and welfare so much,” Lathrop said.

Eliminating caretaker positions at Power Island and Twin Lakes Park, Health Department technicians who run hearing and vision tests, and a Geographic Information Systems technician are also part of the proposed cuts, records show. County officials also could ask townships to up their contribution of local community policing funds.

The potential cuts are not a done deal, Benda said. Officials will keep looking at reducing expenses or increasing revenues before they submit a balanced budget to the county commission at the end of this month. Then it’s up to the county board to make the final budget decisions.