Onaway approves agreement language for police officer changes

ONAWAY – An agreement between Onaway and the Presque Isle County Sheriff Department is one step closer to reality.

Onaway city commissioners unanimously approved the language of a deal that would turn the city’s lone police officer into a sheriff’s deputy at their Monday meeting. The language will be reviewed by County Prosecutor Rick Steiger and the sheriff department, City Manager Joe Hefele said.

Under the agreement, the city would pay the sheriff department $50,000 annually to cover Onaway Police Chief Jim Gibson’s wages once he becomes a deputy, Hefele said. The department would guarantee the city that Gibson or another deputy would spend at least 40 hours a week in the Onaway area, at least 20 hours of which would be night patrol.

Once there’s an opening in the sheriff department, the agreement states Gibson would be hired as an additional deputy and the city would no longer cover his wages, Hefele said. The department also would no longer guarantee the city 40 hours per week of patrol. At this point, the city would use some of the money it’s no longer spending on Gibson’s wages to hire certified officers for additional night patrols.

“We’re going to continue to meet with members of the county board and sheriff and undersheriff” to work on the deal, Hefele said.

While the city and sheriff department continue to work out a deal, Gibson’s employment has been extended for another 30 days, Hefele said. Commissioners approved paying Gibson $1,004.72 per week, and maintaining his insurance and retirement coverage until April 30.

The city is seeking this arrangement as a way to deal with its shrinking finances, Mayor Gary Wregglesworth said. For the 2012-13 fiscal year, the city took in around $338,000 in general fund revenues, down from $420,000 in the 2008-09 fiscal year. The city’s income tax revenues are projected to shrink by another $5,000 in the upcoming fiscal year.

“That just can’t be absorbed without something happening,” he said.

Combine this with a decline in population, and the city’s finances have been hit even harder, Wregglesworth said. Many forms of state and federal funding coming into the city are based on population, and the number of city residents dropped once again in the 2010 Census as it has for 90 years.

Wregglesworth said he doesn’t believe raising taxes would be the answer. Rather, he believes this would push people out of the city and discourage residents and businesses from moving in.

When drafting the arrangement with the sheriff department, the city looked to the village of Hillman as a model, Wregglesworth said. The village depends on Montmorency County deputies for police coverage, and is similar in population and distance from the county seat to Onaway.

Hillman Village Manager, David Post said the village has an agreement with the sheriff department where deputies enforce local ordinances and traffic codes. The department keeps fines from any enforcement.

Hillman has not had its own police department for a number of decades, Post said. Now, a countywide millage will provide funds for a sheriff deputy to patrol the Hillman area for 40 hours a week. In the time the village has depended on sheriff’s deputies for police coverage, there have been little to no issues.

“We’ve had good luck,” he said.

Without a similar county-wide millage, Onaway must work out its own solution. Wregglesworth said the agreement with the Presque Isle County Sheriff Department is “a good solution to a bad situation.”

“It might not be exactly point for point what we have right at the moment, but the money situation dictates that we have to do something different,” he said.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.