Onaway’s only police officer still doesn’t know his fate

ONAWAY – If Presque Isle County and Onaway city officials don’t reach an agreement to deputize the city’s only police officer by May 1, he could be out of work.

Onaway city commissioners agreed to keep talking with county and sheriff department officials at their meeting Monday, City Manager Joe Hefele said. They’re trying to work out a deal to turn Onaway Police Chief Jim Gibson into a deputy and cover his wages until there’s an opening in the department he can fill. It’s an attempt to save money in the face of a chronic budget shortfall.

“We’re bringing in $80,000 less than we were a few years ago,” he said. “We have a hole of about $50,000 in the general fund that we continue to plug with dollars from elsewhere. We’re looking at various scenarios to get as much law enforcement we can afford with the dollars that we have.”

City commissioners previously had extended Gibson’s employment through April 30 while a deal was being reached with the county and the sheriff department, Hefele said. An effort to extend it again to May 11, made by Commissioner Bernie Schmeltzer, died for lack of support.

The city would pay severance to Gibson on or shortly after May 1 if his job isn’t extended farther, Hefele said.

Gibson said he’s concerned about possibly losing his job, but said he’ll have to wait and see what happens.

“I’m concerned, but as long as they’re still talking and this is going to move forward, there’s always that concern,” he said. “But I think it’s either do or don’t come to an agreement. I just have to wait it out like everybody else.”

In the meantime, city and county officials will work to set a meeting date before April 30, Mayor Gary Wregglesworth said. There are a few issues with a contract written by County Prosecutor Richard Steiger that was presented to commissioners Monday. For one, the agreement doesn’t specify how much time Gibson would spend in the city as a deputy.

“I think commissioners want to know before we write a check for $50,000. We want something more than just routine (patrol),” he said. “We’re looking for some sort of set hours, something where they will attempt to do this many hours to the extent practical.”

Another sticking point is the agreement presented would be a five-year contract, Wregglesworth said. This is a long time to commit to a plan, considering neither side knows if it will work.

The city originally proposed a one-year agreement that automatically would renew unless the city or county provided notice they wished to withdraw from it, Hefele said.

The city will continue to work on an agreement with the county, even after Gibson’s employment extension runs out, Hefele said.

City officials’ proposal to deputize Gibson has drawn the ire of some city residents, and city commissioner meetings have been flooded for the past few months with people voicing their support for Gibson. One city resident filed recall language for Wregglesworth and Commissioners Jessie Horrocks and Chuck Abshagen with the county clerk. County officials will review the language at a clarity hearing today at 10 a.m. in Rogers City.

One way or another, Gibson would like to keep working, he said, adding he’s in favor of reaching an agreement with the sheriff’s department.

“It’s a stressful time for everybody,” he said. “We just have to be patient and see what happens.”

In other business:

  • city commissioners approved a $13,149.63 bid from Shepler Well Drilling to install a monitoring well. It’s part of the city’s efforts to clean up a ferric chloride leak at the wastewater treatment plant, Hefele said.
  • city commissioners approved hiring a part-time Department of Public Works employee to fill in for one who recently retired, Hefele said. He’ll work fewer hours, and for lower pay, than the previous employee, and will spend most of his time training at the wastewater treatment plant.

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.