Voters in Pierce Township will have a chance to either support or defeat a 2.9 mill police levy that has been approved by the trustees for inclusion in the May 8 special election.
The levy is the direct response by the township to an expected budget deficit in the police department that could lead to a massive disruption to the service. The levy was requested by a citizen’s group called “Keep Police Presence in Pierce,” who called for aid for the department which has survived on a flat budget for over 10 years.
“First off, we’re in desperate need of additional officers,” said Col. Jim Smith, Pierce Township Police Chief. “This has been documented, and we’ve obtained a grant from the federal government to hire three additional officers. We’re receiving $225,000, but if the levy fails, we won’t be able to hire the officers and the township will lose that $225,000. That means that, if we go to hire those officers later, the township residents will have to pay that full amount.”
Since the police department was formed, the township has experienced explosive growth, which with population increase, has brought an increase in crime. Col. Smith said that the population growth has hurt the department’s funding through the millage process, which sets a taxation rate, but caps the amount of money reaped from that taxation.
Hence, as the population has increased, the amount taxed per household to reach the maximum collectable amount on the 1996 6.5 mill levy has decreased. While the tax decrease sounds attractive, Col. Smith said that it has come at a time when costs of operations have soared for the department.
"We have lived on a flat budget for 11 years," said Col. Smith. "Back then, gasoline was less than a dollar a gallon. Health care has spiraled exponentially. We have been very fiscally responsible. We've attracted money from outside sources. I can probably point to more than $300,000 in grants. Now, we're actually receiving less money than previously through devaluation of the Beckjord power plant and tax rollbacks. We've gone 11 years without an increase in the budget, but now there's nothing left."
In all, township residents are actually paying approximately 2.7 mills of the 6.5 mill levy. The 2.9 mill levy proposed by the township would be in addition to the old levy, creating what would be a combined 5.6 mill levy. That levy, said Col. Smith, is expected to carry the township through at least another decade.
"This is projected to carry us through for another 10 years," said Col. Smith. "That would hopefully be without increases."
Col. Smith said that the proof of their need is in the department's records. Workloads on the department has increased by several hundred percent in only a few years.
"I'm trying to find room for our records," said Col. Smith. "I took our 2002 records to the basement, we have seven boxes of them for that year. Our records vault in the basement has only one box for all the records from 1966 to 1975."
To compare, radio runs in 2001 were 6,378, compared to 8,818 last year. In that time, offense reports jumped from 642 to 2,232, adult arrests from 158 to 489 and juvenile arrests from 42 to 81. Karen Rebori, a 10-year township resident and member of the levy support group, said that the department is stressed and in need of the additional funding.
"A group of citizens found out that the township was discussing a levy and I signed up," said Rebori. "I saw a need, and a lot of the residents have noted this need. I was on a Pierce Township focus group that conducted a survey, and around 80 percent wanted a police levy on the ballot a few years ago."
Col. Smith noted that some of the improvements to the township have brought their own challenges. A new Wal-Mart, for instance, has given the department extra workload through parking lot traffic accidents, thefts and robberies, bad checks, credit card fraud and prescription drug fraud charges. The size of the department means that there are times when only one officer is on duty at a time, and Col. Smith said that there is an increasing number of arrests due to heroin trafficking, meth dealing and crack cocaine possession.
"Crime has gone up, Pierce Township is not the sleepy little community it was years ago," said Col. Smith. "How can I impress on people the need? Some of our vehicles have 150,000 miles on them. It's to the point where one is unsafe to drive anymore for emergency service. We've been very fiscally responsible. After 11 years, I'm sure the residents understand. You can only do so much. We have a tremendous relationship with the community. There is no doubt in my mind that the community will find this reasonable."
Without the levy, the department could face a deficit of nearly half a million dollars in only two years.
"Hopefully, this time what is best for the township will happen. There will always be opposition to a levy," said Rebori. "The population of Pierce Township since 1996 has grown 25 percent. The calls have grown overwhelmingly, as have arrests. The need is there. Some are more in touch with how it effects them than others."