Police plan met with pushback
Sundance council hears concerns at fractious public hearing
October 15, 2020
Backed by a much larger crowd than the council chamber usually enjoys, two citizens expressed dissent last week over a fledgling plan to replace Sundance Police Department with contracted service through the Crook County Sheriff’s Office.
The Sundance City Council, Sheriff Jeff Hodge and Police Chief Marty Noonan were on hand during the scheduled public meeting to answer questions and concerns from the audience. Roger Connett, who said he was there as a private citizen and not as the chairman of the Crook County Republican Party, asked the majority of the questions; he was joined by Randy Stevenson, candidate for the council.
“There are a lot of questions out there…I’m not sure they’ve been adequately answered,” Connett said as the sometimes fractious discussion began.
Before opening the floor to questions, the mayor spoke to the events that have led the city to consider contracting its police services. A mantra he has pointed to regularly over the years, Brooks said it takes 2200 residents for a town to be self-supporting; under that number, the budget is strict and tight.
Recognizing that the average citizen may not be aware of how the city budget works, he explained that each “pot of money” must be used for its designated purpose.
“The way the statutes are written, water has to go for water and sewage has to go for sewage,” he said.
The mayor referred to the fact that, under Wyoming law, enterprise accounts like utilities must pay for themselves and their revenue cannot be used for other aspects of the budget. Only personnel directly involved in these systems, including clerks and public works, may be paid from those accounts.
In other words, it would be illegal to raise water rates and spend that extra revenue on the police, Brooks said, so “that’s not in the cards.”
The costs of such things as streets and public safety must be found elsewhere. A municipality’s main direct income is often sales tax, said the mayor, but Sundance is neither a large town with lots of people to buy and sell, nor close to a railroad point of delivery.
That leaves one option to flesh out the rest of the budget: the state’s annual contribution. Brooks spoke to the enormous budget cuts being made at the state level and the fact that direct distribution this year is expected to drop to just $105 million to be shared between all municipalities and counties, “a level below where it was when Governor Freudenthal took hold many, many years ago”.
Senator Ogden Driskill confirmed that the state budget is going to see some severe cuts, and towns and cities are unfortunately “low hanging fruit”. It’s likely that some will not survive this, he said.
As to what can or will be done, “I don’t have answers – that’s one of the hardest things,” he said.
Bearing this in mind, said Brooks of the police department plan, “we’re painted into a corner and this gets us out.” He commended Crook County’s “incredibly good sheriff” for his willingness to bring a solution that benefits both sides.
Brooks noted that the plan has been referred to outside the council chambers as “defunding” the police in Sundance, which he feels is an “irresponsible” description that does not speak to the real goal. The city is just looking for ways to be more cost-effective, he said.
Connett first questioned whether Sundance will have enough coverage under a contract with the Sheriff’s Office. Acknowledging that the plan as initially suggested does match the coverage Sundance enjoys right now, he asked what would happen if there was a call on a county road and the deputy responsible for patrolling Sundance was the only one available to respond or provide backup.
Hodge replied that the deputy would indeed provide backup if there was an emergency within a couple of miles of town. However, this would be no different to the current setup – Sundance officers already respond to emergency situations near town.
Brooks confirmed that the city and Sheriff’s Office have agreements in place for exactly that reason.
Said Hodge, all law enforcement agencies in this area support one another, including Highway Patrol, because there simply aren’t enough officers for any one department to go it alone.
“Every town does it,” added Hodge. “We rely on each other for that backup.”
Connett asked what would happen if a second emergency occurred inside city limits while the deputy was responding to the first. Hodge again pointed out, “that situation exists right now in every one of the towns” and explained the reality is that, “you have to prioritize calls.”
Noonan commented that coverage is likely to be better under this plan than what the current police department would be able to provide in the future. He cut as much as he could from his most recent budget, he said; if things get worse, “the next thing to cut is a guy.”
The department would likely only be able to support one or two officers in the near future, Noonan said.
Connett suggested this region is on the edge of potential growth, partly due to the number of people looking to move to more sparsely populated areas in the wake of the pandemic. This would string out all the county services, he said, including the Sheriff’s Office.
Connett expressed concern that, if things do change, it will cost Sundance to get back into the police business. Would the city be stuck in its contract? he asked.
City Attorney Mark Hughes said he has reviewed the proposed contract and confirmed it runs from year to year and has a 90-day cancellation period.
In the meantime, said Brooks, the problem is happening right now. The city is facing a possible revenue shortfall of $135,000 to $150,000 and that needs to be solved immediately.
Council Member Joe Wilson added that, as the city grows, so too will its tax revenue and there will be more funding to figure out how to address such things as expanding law enforcement.
If the state’s finances are in bad shape and towns and counties are likely to see cuts, Hughes asked what would happen if Hodge’s own budget is cut and he starts losing deputies. The sheriff replied that he has been anticipating cuts and included a modest excess above expenses in the contract for exactly that purpose: it will be dedicated for law enforcement and used for future needs.
Brooks added that the county is a little more insulated from the knock-on effects of the state shortfall thanks to revenue from property tax and such sources as the pipelines traveling through the county.
Lack of Effort
Connett suggested the city just doesn’t want to put the effort into keeping hold of its police department. It seems, he said, that if the city really does want to do something – such as a new park or a new façade for city hall – it finds a way.
Why can’t the city put as much effort into its police? he asked.
Brooks explained that, “they’re different pots of money.” The items referenced by Connett were paid for through grants, he said, but there is no grant money available for ongoing operations.
“I would challenge anyone to tell me where there’s money for ongoing operations,” he said.
Driskill said he investigated this question personally and wasn’t able to find any such funding.
Brooks also spoke to the city’s ideals in sponsoring projects such as the new Central Park, Old Stoney and beautification. The goal, he said, is to reach a population of 2200 so the city becomes self-supporting, and the fastest way to do that is to offer the amenities young families are looking for.
Connett retorted that people also look at law enforcement and safety when choosing a place to live. “It does matter,” he said.
Stevenson also spoke to the importance of a police department and said he believes it takes both police and a sheriff’s office to make a good impression on newcomers. “The presence is priceless,” he said, imploring the city to at least try to employ new officers when the current officers retire rather than simply saying it’s too hard to find good candidates.
Noonan explained that there’s a reason for it being difficult: the likelihood that the department will soon only be able to support two men. In that situation, “you’re on call an awful lot.” he said.
“I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “You’re not going to find anyone to do it.”
At least, he clarified, you’re not going to find someone willing to take on such a tiresome schedule who is also someone worthy of being employed. Consolidating services is the best way to get a quality product, he said; a two-man department simply isn’t an attractive prospect to an applicant.
Bearing that in mind, said Hodge, the city would end up relying on the Sheriff’s Office for coverage anyway. Hulett does it for weeks at a time, he said, as a two-man department has gaps in coverage when one officer is absent for such things as vacation and training – and that costs the county money.
Stevenson suggested the city could shore up the financial need by adding a line to every citizen’s utility bill to pay for the police department. Hughes said that, while he has never had cause to research such an idea, he does not believe the city would have that ability.
Connett relayed a message from Chip Neiman, Republican candidate for House Representative #1. Neiman had asked him to pass on, Connett said, that when Hulett reduced its police department to one officer with backup from the Sheriff’s Office, his insurance rates went up.
Noonan responded that this is “a completely different situation.” This would not be the Sheriff’s Office providing backup, it would be the Sheriff’s Office contracting to provide service. It would therefore not affect insurance rates in the same way.
Lack of Communication
Connett accused the council and Sheriff’s Office of being “terrible” at communication. The plan to get rid of the police department just hit the newspaper with no warning, he said.
However, this comment did not reflect the reality of the chain of events. The idea was brought before the county commissioners and council at their respective September meetings; at that time, the council opted to advertise a public hearing one month later with the specific goal of hearing citizens’ thoughts and “vetting” the idea before deciding whether to move forward with concrete plans.
Council Member Callie Hilty stated that the city does not yet have a start date or a detailed plan of action precisely because the council is undergoing this vetting process first.
His questions about the contract having all been adequately answered, Connett turned his attention to the reason for the idea in the first place: dire shortfalls to the state budget.
Something is flawed, he said, if the state spent dollars like it was made of them for years and now we can’t support towns and police. We should have seen this coming and planned for it, he said.
“We all took our eye off the ball and we weren’t speaking soon enough,” he said, commenting that he feels, “we have spent money like drunken sailors,” didn’t see the signs and didn’t stop spending when we knew coal was unlikely to come back.
Senator Driskill strongly objected to these statements, saying the state was not blind to the situation.
“The state has cut and cut and cut,” he said. The budget is $1 billion lower than it was ten years ago and there are 700 fewer state employees.
Driskill took offense at the idea the shortfall is due to mismanagement of state finances. The energy market is where most state revenue comes from; that changed and the state cut in response, he said.
“That’s no fault of any government person or anybody who was in office,” he said. “…That’s what happens when markets change.”
The county was not ignorant of the shortfall either, said Hodge, and preparing for it is exactly what the plan is about. His intention, he said, is to get out in front rather than wait for the train to hit next year.
The city, too, has been aware of the issue, said Brooks. However, it’s only possible to work with the best information you have at any given time, he said – nobody has a crystal ball.
Driskill expressed frustration with what he sees as a tendency for detractors to kill off new ideas before they are ever even properly heard.
“What we need is not people who are upset about what’s happened in the past. You look forward and you figure out constructive solutions,” he said. “…For me, the correct thing to do is to sit and listen…and then have comments at the end after you’ve listened and decide whether it works or not.”