Onaway to continue working on police deal with sheriff’s dept.

ONAWAY – Onaway city commissioners gave their city manager the go-ahead to keep working on a deal with the Presque Isle County Sheriff Department to save the city’s police force.

City Manager Joe Hefele will meet with Presque Isle County Sheriff Robert Paschke and Undersheriff Joe Brewbaker to discuss the cost of having Police Chief Jim Gibson become a sheriff’s deputy. The city would pay his wages and benefits until the sheriff’s department had an opening and could take Gibson onto its payroll. Onaway officials are pursuing this option as a way to save money in the face of an impending budget shortfall, and to maintain the city’s police force.

City commissioners voted unanimously Monday to support the concept of Gibson becoming a deputy after Hefele told them about his first meeting with Paschke, Brewbaker, commission member Jesse Horrocks, Gibson and County Commissioner Robert Schell.

To close a budget gap of more than $50,000, the city could either eliminate its one-man police force, not invest in infrastructure or raise taxes, three options Hefele and others called equally unappealing.

“From what I have heard, from within the community and outside the community, substantially raising the cost of living might solve our problem in the short term, but you’re setting up a situation where more people are looking to leave,” Hefele said.

Wregglesworth said he doubted the public would support a millage, pointing out that voters resoundingly rejected two requests to raise one mill in the past. He voiced his support for finding a way to work with the sheriff’s department.

“I think it’s our best viable option that we have, short of a big chunk of money showing up, which I don’t see happening,” he said.

Wregglesworth was less enthusiastic about the idea of asking neighboring townships to share the cost of running the department. Hefele asked commissioners whether he should pursue this after they put the idea forth in a previous meeting.

While sharing costs with the townships would help the city foot the bill, the townships likely would want Gibson to patrol there as well, diluting police protection for the city, Wregglesworth said. Ultimately, he didn’t think sharing the cost – and the police officer – was a workable option.

Another item to be ironed out is how much time Gibson will spend in Onaway if he becomes a deputy, Horrocks said. Under such an arrangement, the city potentially could hire him part-time for extra patrols or local ordinance enforcement, Hefele said.

Onaway’s debate over the future of its police department has proven to be a controversial one. Numerous members of the public have come to city meetings to voice their support for Gibson and keeping the city’s police protection. While no one did so Monday evening, Wregglesworth threatened to shut the meeting down after one audience member interrupted to voice her disgust with Hefele.

In other business:

  • Onaway will get $14,000 to demolish two tax-foreclosed houses deemed by the county building inspector to be uninhabitable and unsalvageable, Hefele said. Michigan Land Bank made the money available to communities to fight blight. The Onaway Fire Department will use both houses for controlled-burn training exercises after any asbestos in the houses is properly disposed of.
  • the city will apply for another grant, this one from the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority to rehabilitate housing in the city, Hefele said. With a neighboring business looking to add jobs, Onaway potentially could have a housing availability problem. The grant would help qualified home buyers bring houses up to standards.
  • city commissioners will discuss a farm animal ordinance at their next meeting. Hefele told them an ordinance like the one they will consider was defeated by commissioners five years ago due to concerns over limiting certain animals like chickens. In response to commission member Ron Horrocks’ concerns, Hefele said he has no intention of forbidding city residents from owning chickens. Wregglesworth said many cities allow people to keep up to four hens in a coop.

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