PORTAGE - An option for village officials, as they mull over ways to prevent a $196,000 deficit this year, is eliminating the police department.
Mayor Mark Wolford, however, is looking at every means possible to keep the Portage police on duty.
"The citizens have shown they want the police department ... so I feel I've got to do everything I can (to keep it)," he said. "If there's any way I can do it, I'll try to save the police department but it's an 'if.'"
The police department is expected to operate at a $69,000 loss this year, according to figures presented to council last month by the state auditor's office. Portage has been in fiscal emergency with the state since April, and the mayor and council have until Oct. 5 to come up with a five-year recovery plan.
Meetings are scheduled for Tuesday and Sept. 28 to discuss strategies; council also meets Sept. 21.
If the police department does become a casualty of the extreme budget problems, the Wood County Sheriff's Office would respond to 911 calls and other law enforcement emergencies.
The sheriff's department already handles some calls for the village, said Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn.
If Portage prefers extra services, such as running radar, it could contract with the sheriff's office for $30 an hour.
Wasylyshyn said the sheriff's office has contracts with 10 different Wood County communities, including Grand Rapids, Weston, Tontogany, Cygnet, Jerry City, Troy Township and Bairdstown.
"Personally, I think it's the best move Grand Rapids made," Mayor Judy Keifer said of her village's choice to eliminate its police department more than eight years ago and contract with the sheriff's office. "I think council did a big service to the village when they changed that."
Among the advantages she cited are constant patrols by deputies; when something "comes up" a second deputy responds to assist the one in the village; the contract is cheaper than having village police because there's no cruiser to maintain, equipment, uniforms, etc.; and the village can increase or decrease the number of hours in its contract based on the seasons.
"I think they do a real good job. There's no way having our own department we'd have the coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If we had a chief who worked 40 hours, that's what (we'd) get, 40 hours. ... It's extremely cheaper. ... It's more 'bang' for our buck."
Weston Mayor Howard Lashuay said he's satisfied with deputy coverage of the village and described it as "fine." "We're getting our dollar," he said. "We are billed for 40 hours a week. We always get a little more."
But he's unhappy with juvenile problems in town. "There's only so much you can do with them. You can't take them to Bowling Green. The sheriff said they would step up and start looking at that. I think our second Monday meetings will help quite a bit in our relationship with the sheriff department." Lashuay will meet with Dep. Rod Konrad the second Monday of each month to "discuss our problems if we have any."
The advantage to contracting with the sheriff is that communities get a set charge for the services, which makes budgeting easier.
Wasylyshyn said the $30 an hour for extra patrol includes the charge for the vehicle and gas. The sheriff's office also covers liability issues.
He said he's been following Portage's financial woes and knows the village probably can't pay for any extra service.
"With their financial situation, whatever they do, we'll certainly support. If they can't afford to, we'll handle them as best we can," Wasylyshyn said.
The sheriff's office has 30 road deputies.
Wolford said if Portage loses its police department, the mayor's court and the revenue that comes with it will also disappear. Deputies' citations would go through Bowling Green Municipal Court, he said.
"But it (going with the sheriff for service) is an option, and it's something we need to look at," Wolford said.
Deputy Robert Eaton patrols Grand Rapids. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)