Onaway discusses taxpayer survey results

ONAWAY – After getting the results from a taxpayer survey, Onaway city commissioners opted at their meeting Wednesday to pursue a partnership with the Presque Isle County Sheriff Department as a way to possibly save the city’s police force.

The move comes as officials are grappling with an impending budget shortfall of as much as $60,000, City Manager Joe Hefele said. One option to fix this would be to fire Police Chief Jim Gibson, the city’s lone police officer. Partnering with the sheriff department would be one way to avoid this. Commissioner Jesse Horrocks, Hefele and Gibson will meet with County Commissioner Bob Schell, along with Sheriff Bob Paschke and Undersheriff Joe Brewbaker to discuss a possible arrangement.

At the meeting’s start, some audience members voiced their support for Gibson. One said he could protect himself, but worried for those who couldn’t. Another asked how many businesses the city would expect to want to open if there were no local police force. Yet another suggested putting the question to a vote, something Mayor Gary Wregglesworth said he’d take into consideration.

At the end of his police report, Gibson thanked everyone for their support and said he viewed the surveys as a good thing. Eliminating the police department was one of four options on a survey sent to city taxpayers. It also included an option of letting some streets go to gravel and keeping Gibson, raising taxes to fix the roads and keep the police department, or writing in another suggestion.

“I’ve seen some things in there where I can improve the services that I provide,” he said.

Gibson echoed the comments of Commissioner Chuck Abshagen, who suggested approaching surrounding townships about chipping in money for policing services.

Along with going to calls in the surrounding townships, Gibson helps at Onaway Area Community Schools, he said. The mere presence of a police officer acts as a deterrent for crime, and this is especially important given the rise in school violence.

“We can’t take the attitude that nothing is going to happen here, because it will,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Of the 406 surveys sent out, the city received 211, Hefele said. The results were about equal, with one third giving support for eliminating the police department, one third for letting the roads go and one third for raising taxes.

Abshagen said he noticed there’s a misconception among taxpayers that there are easy ways to fix the city’s budget problem.

“There isn’t,” he said. “The money is not there.”

Wregglesworth agreed.

“One easy answer would be to go back in time to 2000 funding levels, and go back to 2000 property values and we’d be fine, but we can’t do that,” he said.

Hefele and others also defended the city’s use of grants for numerous projects, including the recent replacement of a water main under the city’s main street, along with the road itself. While the city has put up money to get the grants, it has received much more in return.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand there was a 100-year-old water main under there and we needed to have it replaced,” Horrocks said. “In order to do that, we just couldn’t do it on our own funding.”

In light of the criticism Wregglesworth saw about the city building the sewer system, he said it was an exceptionally good deal for the city.

“The sewer system was like if you want to look at a house, and someone said, ‘I have a $10 million house, but I would take $2 million for it at 2 percent over 40 years,'” he said. “I think any real estate buyer in the country would jump all over that deal, and they would kick themselves if they didn’t have that $2 million to get that $10 million house.”

Hefele said city voters authorized commissioners to get a loan for the project by a vote of nearly 5-to-1. He saw completing the system as a directive from the city electorate.

Ultimately, the city is still considering its options for how to tackle the looming budget crisis, Hefele said.

“I think there’s a thought out there that today or tomorrow we’re going to make a motion to eliminate something, and that’s not at all what we’re doing,” he said. “There are avenues to explore, and I will tell you that each and every one of them is going to take time.”

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688.