Possible Berrien County police cuts opposed

Some neighborhood watch captains in Berrien County don’t like what they see.

They see the possibility of further budget cuts at the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department.

They’re afraid they’ll end up seeing fewer officers on patrol.

The notion came from early discussions about the 2013 county budget, and the desire for all departments to keep 2013 funding at 2012 levels.

Today, Neighborhood Watch representatives wanted to make it clear--the idea is not acceptable where the sheriff’s department is concerned.

“Over the past few years, most of the public is not aware that they have already cut 15 officers from the sheriff’s department,” said Neighborhood Watch Coordinator Walter Zych. “The public doesn’t even know that there are times, because of sickness of officers, because of vacations that we only have three officers in the whole of Berrien County to respond to any call.”

The sheriff’s department has already cut 13 positions from the jail staff and road patrol in the past six years. It has arguably reached the end of the road in terms of budget cutting options; only the road patrol remains.

“I cannot cut the jail any further than it’s already cut because we have a mandate on how many deputies I have to have in there from the department of corrections, nine per shift, the road patrol—there isn’t any mandate,” said Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey. “You know at times we’re at bare minimums and losing more people I think would cause me big staffing issues.”

Petitions of protest are already being passed around. Today 70 signatures were presented to elected leaders at a meeting of the Berrien County Board of Commissioners, with a promise of more to come.

“Every step that can be taken to minimize any kind of an effect on public safety is going to be taken,” said Berrien County Commissioner Jon Hinkelman. “Like I said, I think it's a little premature to say that there's, there's going to be extensive cuts to anything.”

But the sheriff feels it’s to the point where the threat to public safety is so great that any decision that would take more officers off the street should be made by the public at large—perhaps at the polls.

“So we need to communicate with the citizens, hey, do we need to enhance that public safety millage? Nobody wants to pay more taxes but we have to take a look at that and ask them if, if the commissioners cannot come up with the funding, give them a choice to vote, no or yes, you know, for less police,” Bailey said.

Today brought an indication that the commissioners may be sympathetic.

Due to retirements there are now three openings on the department. The sheriff was hesitant to fill those positions—given the situation with the budget.

Today the commissioners told him to go ahead and fill one of the three positions.

Sheriff Bailey says a flat line budget for 2013 would bring about the need for some $670,000 in cuts. That’s because of unavoidable increases in insurance and pension costs.

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