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The Tawas Police Authority Building in East Tawas.

TAWAS CITY – In a 5-1 vote at a special meeting on Sept. 3, the Tawas City Council chose to not pursue a contract with the Iosco County Sheriff’s Office (ICSO) for police coverage. Council member Jill VanDriessche was absent, while Kane Kelly was opposed.

A proposal from the ICSO has been discussed heavily in recent weeks, including by the East Tawas and Tawas City councils, during an Aug. 31 joint meeting. The Iosco County Board of Commissioners (BoC) also weighed in, when they met on Sept. 2.

One item which has been stressed in all of the gatherings, is that the details surrounding a potential contract with the ICSO are strictly for informational purposes. As pointed out by Sheriff Allan MacGregor, this was not a push by the ICSO. The department was simply asked to draw up some numbers for discussion, and they accommodated that request.

The latest meeting was held to further go over the proposal, which entails options for a four-year contract with the ICSO either while absorbing the existing Tawas Police Authority (TPA) equipment, or purchasing new equipment. In each instance, Iosco County would assume all liability of contracted police services.

The estimates for the full four years of the contract, if utilizing existing TPA equipment, would be either three deputies, working 120 hours per week, at a cost of $1,228,777; four deputies, 160 hours, $1,613,343; or five deputies, 200 hours (24/7 coverage), $2,013,641. With all new equipment, the assumptions would be three deputies, 120 hours, $1,369,952; four deputies, 160 hours, $1,673,893; or five deputies, 200 hours, $2,133,065.

The figures were generated at the request of East Tawas, with City Manager and TPA Board Chair Brent Barringer explaining that this was done to better understand the potential of contracting the county’s services. This is only a preliminary look at the possible option. The ICSO provided the estimates on Aug. 28, which were shared with officials in the neighboring community that same day.

Meeting participants included ICSO and TPA personnel, local officials, residents and a few of the applicants vying for the TPA Chief position. The current chief, Mark Ferguson, intends to resign by the end of the year.

It was during the public comment period when remarks were shared by Kelly Jo Gartland, Tawas City, whose husband is the TPA Sergeant.

She said that consolidating the TPA with the ICSO would neither streamline local police services nor improve police coverage. “There is no current overlap or duplicating of police services between these two agencies.”

According to Gartland, it would not improve the opportunity for rank advancement, either.

She also said that consolidating would not improve the TPA officer’s salary, and it wouldn’t even allow for a lateral move. In fact, they would endure a significant loss in pay.

“Consolidation does not guarantee a cost savings that will be substantial enough or consistent enough over time to justify the immense shuffling and loss of local coverage to implement this proposal,” Gartland said. “I feel that much of this proposed consolidation has developed with little attention given to the amount and nature of services actually provided under each agency. It was premature to voice this proposal in a public setting.”

Formal or not, she reiterated her comments from Aug. 31, saying that the proposal is ill-timed. 

The ramifications of the TPA Chief interview process, the rapport with the TPA, the inevitable tension that will be put on the TPA/ICSO relationship and the resulting public confusion are unwelcome effects which cannot be reversed, Gartland said.

Tawas City Manager Annge Horning, who also serves as TPA Board Vice Chair/Operations Director, sent a list of questions about the proposal to the ICSO.

One inquiry involved a sample scenario in which the municipalities opt for four deputies. She asked that, if four TPA officers were hired as the deputies to patrol the two cities, would they at any time be assigned to work a shift for the entire county.

“We would see the same four deputies assigned to the cities but we would not limit those same deputies to only the city contracts. They would have opportunities to work outside those contracts within the Sheriffs’ Office,” MacGregor replied.

He explained that if a health condition or other leave resulted in an absence by the deputy assigned to the cities, then the ICSO would designate a substitute deputy. The deputies assigned to the city contracts shall not be sent outside of the cities on any call, unless of an emergency nature, as is the case with the current TPA policy.

Horning also requested a copy of the ICSO wage scale, and shared the TPA’s wages for comparison (see chart attached to this story). She said there is a sizeable difference between the numbers. For example, the ICSO’s starting wage is $3.56 per hour less than the TPA’s. “So, that’s starting out at $7,400 less than they would if they were a TPA officer.” The drop in annual salary for the other positions would range from about $4,500 to $5,200.

If the TPA were to dissolve and the ICSO contracting route were taken, Horning said the sergeant would lose his rank, thus, bringing his pay cut closer to $8,500. Further, each TPA member would lose the $2,200 health savings account contribution from the authority. So, the $4,500 figure would be more in the neighborhood of a $6,700 loss. “For our sergeant, that goes up over $10,000. Those are significant differences, and I can’t imagine many people could stand to take a pay cut like that.”

She then referenced a recent article in this publication, which summarized the joint meeting of the two councils. She said it mentions that the ICSO will be matching the wages that the TPA officers are currently making, but she doesn’t understand that to be the case. “Your proposal is just to match their years of service and pay them at your corresponding rate of pay. Correct?”

MacGregor said that is true, and no mention was ever made of bringing them in on their current rate of pay.

To clarify, the article did not state that the ICSO would match the TPA wages. East Tawas Councilwoman and TPA Board Member Lisa Bolen said that honoring the current pay rates was discussed with the sheriff, and that it looks like this could happen.

Again, at the time, these talks were in a very preliminary stage – and are still being viewed as such.

Tawas City Mayor Ken Cook asked about the timing of the proposal, as well as the posting of the TPA Chief position.

Horning said the TPA Board voted on July 21 to post the position, which Ferguson did either that day or the next. The applications were due on Aug. 20, and there were 14 submittals.

Cook said he was interested in the timing because he feels bad for the candidates who have applied, only to find out that there’s some discourse among the two cities and that they’re looking at alternative police protection services.

“And that has nothing to do with the sheriff’s department, at all,” he expressed, adding that the ICSO was asked to provide something, they did just that and he appreciates their response.

Mayor Pro Tem Brian McMurray asked if there is a driving force which makes this a good idea, from a county perspective, and if it is something that the ICSO thinks could be optimized to a level where there is a substantial cost savings for the same type of service.

Iosco County Jail Administrator, Captain Scott Frank, said he thinks that it would. A contract with the ICSO would mean that the TPA wouldn’t have the building costs it currently does, it wouldn’t be paying for a chief and it wouldn’t have to cover administration or clerical expenses.

“So, basically, your money would go directly towards officers on the road,” Frank said, adding that he thinks this would result in a substantial increase in the hours of actual patrol.

He also pointed out that the figures in the proposal are for deputies on the road, and that nothing would be taken from these wages to pay for the clerical staff or administration.

Cook said that the council was given a contract example between the Bay County Sheriff’s Department and the various municipalities it serves.

MacGregor said that this department contracts with several communities for police services, and the ICSO pulled some of their ideas from these contracts. While this is a fairly new concept for Iosco County, contracting for police services is common.

One concern of Tawas City Councilman and TPA Board Member, Jon Studley, is that the county sheriff role is an elected position – meaning this could change every four years. “I see that the contract is for four years,” he said of the proposal.

He asked MacGregor if he thinks this is something the BoC would continue to look at, regardless of who’s leading the sheriff’s department.

MacGregor said he thinks so. “It’s police work, and that’s what we do.” He added that any sheriff who comes in will hopefully have what it takes to keep such a program going, because it’s just good police work.

“You have a great police department; you have a great chief,” he commented. “We’re not trying to take that away from that. We’re just trying to answer some questions for you to move forward.”

As for the four-year contract, he said it was just a suggestion from the Bay County Sheriff. But the term could be different than this, and run for whatever length the involved parties choose.

From here, the council shared what they view as both pros and cons to contracting with the ICSO. The pros include potential cost savings on overhead and administration; a better facility for the TPA to use; the fact that there are options for the cities to pick what coverage would best fit their needs; the possibility of getting closer to 24-hour police coverage; and less work on the administration of the TPA entity itself, which would free up more time for city personnel and council members to focus on other items.

To the point of full coverage, Horning said the TPA is nearly at the 24/7 mark, and there are only six hours in a week that are not covered.

The cons include potentially having to repurchase equipment if they go with the ICSO, but the contract is not renewed in the future for some reason. There would also be a pay cut for the current TPA officers. The continuation of the program is unknown, given the changes that can occur with the sheriff position and the membership on the BoC and city councils – which may result in less control, as well. It was also noted that, if going down this path and a contract doesn’t come to fruition, then this is a disservice to the hiring process for the new chief.

“There were some pretty impressive candidates on that list, so I don’t know exactly what they’re thinking,” McMurray said.

He added that he doesn’t know the TPA’s thoughts on this, either, in terms of their pros and cons for the various options.

Horning said one item not listed under the cons, is that the TPA’s office manager could also potentially lose her job.

Councilwoman Jackie Masich said that, as residents, community members already pay for the sheriff’s department. “Then as a resident of the city, we’re paying for a second coverage by the sheriff’s department; understandably, our own people who we would be hiring, but the other townships and cities aren’t necessarily paying a second time for coverage if something happens in their community. They’re going to be covered anyway.”

“We have one road deputy right now. So, he would still be working his 40 hours for the entire county, which would also be the City of East Tawas and the City of Tawas City, right now,” Frank said.

He explained that this is to be a dedicated service, and there are different levels available. In the proposal example of three deputies, that’s 120 hours per week that the two communities would have that service. “Right now, you have 40 hours, divided by 11 different townships and cities.”

“So, it would be the dedicated hours, plus the hours that we would normally get as being part of the county?” Masich questioned, which Frank confirmed.

Masich also said that McMurray raised a great point, and she would like input from the TPA on this, as well.

Based on the staff he has spoke with, Ferguson said there is certainly some apprehension, but it hasn’t been expressed as being overwhelming. There is also an understanding that, if they were to not lose benefits, it would pretty much be a swap.

With everything moving rather fast, he said he believes those in the department are simply waiting to see where this may go.

“My personal concerns are certainly nothing to do with the sheriff’s department, specifically. We’ve always had a great relationship and there’s a lot of respect there,” Ferguson said.

In reference to the council comments, while there would be less time spent on administration, he said it is also through administering the TPA that officials are able to give their input and have an effect on how the TPA polices the area.

Masich sought clarification on whether a contract would be a decision of the TPA Board.

Studley said he also wondered about this, because the way the proposal is put, is to the TPA – which did not request it. “So, in my mind, it would have to be drawn up as a contract for the two cities; not for the TPA.”

An agreement with the ICSO would also have to be approved by the BoC.

McMurray asked about the contract between the cities and the TPA, as far as termination of the agreement.

Horning said there is a 12-month notification requirement to terminate, and that the TPA is a contract between the two cities. So, to Masich’s question, this has to be a council decision. “It’s not a TPA decision.”

Cook said there was a lot of work put into settling the TPA union contracts and getting the numbers in line to be competitive.

He believes the chief would agree that this has been an area of frustration, and he would like to think that the new contract which was recently signed puts the TPA in a really good spot. “Now we’re saying let’s not worry about that. That’s a concern to me, so I can’t support it. I’m sorry.”

This is when Studley made the motion to not move forward on contracting with the ICSO.

Cook said it was a tough choice, and he reiterated that the decision was in no way a reflection of the ICSO. “Let’s hope now that we can send a message and we can come back cohesively together and continue on with our search for the new chief.”

Horning said the TPA Board would be advised at their meeting the next day about the action from Tawas City, and that they will also discuss how they’re going to move forward with hiring a new chief. “So, we’ll have to react to whatever they decide, or potentially react. If they decide to contract with the sheriff’s department, regardless, we might be looking for a Tawas City police department.”

Along that vein, McMurray made a motion stating that Tawas City is committed to supporting the TPA in their contract with East Tawas, and is committed to keeping this entity intact and moving forward. The motion passed 6-0.

As for the conversation with the county, MacGregor said he thinks there was some confusion at first, as the BoC may have been under the impression that they were being presented with a final deal. But it was explained that the ICSO wasn’t even asked to prepare this until very recently. He believes the talk ended well, once they understood that the proposal was for information only.

The general feeling shared by the BoC was that they weren’t necessarily for or against the proposal, but that they just needed more information and more time.

MacGregor told commissioners that the cost estimates are the result of East Tawas’s request for some figures to be put together.

He said that when the TPA assessment was performed by Alexander Weiss Consulting last year, one of the results of that was to seek input from the sheriff’s department for potential contracting. “So, they’re going through that formality now, along with taking applications for police chief.”

He said he thinks this is another option being looked at, in the big picture for the TPA.

With the TPA officers being becoming deputies, to only patrol the jurisdictions of East Tawas and Tawas City, Commissioner Donald “Jay” O’Farrell asked how the rest of Iosco County would benefit from this type of program.

“Well, the rest of the county would be right where they’re at right now, with the patrol coverage that they have right now. This is a contract service for dedicated hours and dedicated service,” MacGregor said.

Another concern of O’Farrell’s involves the TPA’s unfunded pension liability through the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System of Michigan (MERS).

He also pointed to the section of the proposal which reads that Iosco County would accept all liability for this type of program.

MacGregor said that if things ever get to a point where a contract is actually drawn up, the MERS aspect would have to be dealt with as a separate issue. “We wouldn’t absorb that.”

The BoC was informed that the county would not be financially responsible for any prior TPA pension costs, but Iosco County Clerk Nancy Huebel said she would want to check into this to confirm.

O’Farrell said the current deputies have jurisdictions they patrol, basically, and work for the entire county. In this proposal, deputies would be dedicated to East Tawas and Tawas City, with the whole county taking on the liability.

MacGregor said that was correct but, as contract officers, they would be able to work outside of the county if there’s overtime available. “We’d have to meet their contract first, but they would still be county deputies.”

Commissioner Charles Finley asked if these options would include providing secondary road patrol services, for example.

“Yes, that would give us the ability to do that. Once the contract is met, if there’s overtime available in other projects within the county, then they would be free to be part of that,” said MacGregor.

If the two cities pick up the financial costs for these deputies, O’Farrell asked how they could leave those jurisdictions, and who is going to pay for them if they do.

MacGregor said the way the contract would be worked out is, they would not leave unless in an extreme emergency – which all the police departments participate in. “It would be part of the contract, because they’re working that shift. It would be assumed to that shift.”

O’Farrell sought confirmation that they wouldn’t be patrolling outside of the two municipalities.

MacGregor said that is correct, and the situation is no different than the way it exists now. While the deputies could respond to an extreme emergency elsewhere in the county, they wouldn’t be taking complaints or doing general patrol in the other municipalities.

“We’re a long ways from committing to any type of program such as this,” O’Farrell said. “I can understand where they’re coming from. They’re trying to look at all of their options and that, but this option at this point in time, doesn’t look like it’s one that’s going to fly.”

BoC Chair Robert Huebel said he has some of the same concerns others have shared and, if they can get firm answers to their questions, he thinks it would make the commissioners more knowledgeable in moving forward.

MacGregor said the two cities want the BoC kept in the loop, and that he believes everybody wants to work together for a resolution. Police coverage is an important issue, be it with the ICSO or if the TPA hires a new chief and moves on. “Whatever works best for them. I think we’re just an option.”

BoC Vice Chair John Moehring said he doesn’t think it would hurt to get some of these questions answered and just look at whatever the contract would be, what the liabilities are and what the county would be assuming.

Frank, who also participated in the meeting, said the ICSO will find the answers to these before they come back to the commissioners again. They will also be advised of any increases in cost or liability but, as the sheriff’s department sees it, this would be 100 percent paid for by the two cities.

“They approached us because of the Weiss consulting, so it’s just an option we’re giving them,” he said.

Nancy Huebel said she would like to know, as well, what the consultant stated.

As previously reported, upon conducting its evaluation of the TPA operations, policies and a number of other aspects, Alexander Weiss Consulting came back with a list of recommendations for the department.

Among these, they said that it will be important to consider whether to continue funding a department at current personnel levels, increase the current size of the agency or consider providing services with alternative models. One such avenue is a public safety department model.

The consultants also stated that it’s worth considering the cost savings of contracting with the ICSO. The department has the building space and good resources and, ultimately, it may result in a savings.

The consensus from the BoC was that they would like more information to get a fuller picture, with Robert Huebel noting that they may have to revisit this a couple more times.

Both Frank and MacGregor assured the BoC that they will try to answer whatever questions they have.

Finley said hats off to the ICSO for getting the information they were able to provide, in such a small time frame.

He remarked that there are a lot of questions to be answered and due diligence that needs to be done, which will take some time. But he viewed the conversation that day as strictly informational. “I have the utmost confidence in our sheriff’s department.”

Council members on each side have agreed that this all comes down to doing whatever is best for the community and the TPA, while also recognizing that some people’s livelihoods will be tied to the decision.