With a population of nearly 1,000, Belfield is home to just a single police officer.
Police Chief Steve Byrne works 40 hours a week alongside his right-hand man K-9 “Thor,” patrolling the town, maintaining good order and discipline while keeping residents safe. But one active officer is just not enough and Belfield city officials are considering collaborating with the Stark County Sheriff’s Office and cutting the current city’s police department.
The Belfield City Council met Tuesday evening at the Belfield Theater to discuss the impacts of disbanding the Belfield Police Department and how that will affect the community. Mayor Marriann Mross proposed sending out a questionnaire to the citizens of Belfield in January and revisit the agenda item at the next meeting in 2021 before making any concrete decisions. Councilwoman Pam Gross made the motion to send out a questionnaire, councilman Edward Braun seconded the motion.
Retaining and hiring officers has continued to be an issue for the Belfield Police Department and conversations about combining forces with Stark County have been in the air for the last several months.
“That’s another ongoing issue is if every two years we’re going to have a turnover with our deputies, that’s not fair to the citizens, it’s not fair to Steve — he just gets them trained. But that’s an outcome we can’t control whereas if we had Stark County, we’d have more continuity in my opinion,” Mross said. “... It’s a tough call.”
Councilman Bruce Baer mentioned that before the city can move forward with the suggested course of action, there needs to be more clarification from the Stark County Sheriff’s Office on how they’re going to enforce city ordinances.
“The other thing here is with the cost of the $215,000 per one year 2021-22, they also want us to give them two patrol cars, give them the dog that we paid for and paid training for plus they want our reserve saving account that Steve writes the money for the K-9,” Baer said, explaining, “So based on my calculations, not only will we be paying them $215,000 to $225,000 per year for the next three years. We’re also giving them about $145,000 of city assets that if we give (that) to them when we start this deal and (one year) we decide we don’t want them, we got to go out and buy two cars and a dog. So there’s a lot of things to be addressed before making technical decisions on that.”
Before moving forward, Baer suggested that there needs to be more of a formal agreement before taking any further action.
A couple of citizens from the public raised the concern of response time if officers are responding to calls in Belfield and are traveling from Dickinson. Sheriff Corey Lee of the Stark County Sheriff’s Office replied that citizens should see more patrol if this action is approved.
“It is what it is. Obviously, having a police officer in your town is nice but then again, when you have a one-man department like where Steve is at right now, he only works 40 hours a week. That’s a lot of hours left in the week where we’re responding to calls in Belfield,” Lee said. “So really not a lot is going to change.”
At a minimum, the Stark County Sheriff’s Office would provide 160 hours of service per month.
“It’s really no different than it is now. So Belfield is on the same dispatch center that we’re on, so 911 calls obviously go to that dispatch center. And we’re already actually handling a good portion of the 911 calls for Belfield, so if Steve’s off duty, we get those 911 calls now and respond appropriately. So really not much is going to change,” Lee said.
Byrne noted that it’s getting more difficult to hire officers who are willing to stay. Most of the previous officers hired came from Minnesota and only stayed for a short while to build up their resume and move back home.
“I think officers communicate with other friends, officers and other agencies (for) the ability to maybe obtain some more experience (and) have the ability to roam a little bit instead of just in a smaller area like the city of Belfield,” Byrne said.
Since August of 2012, Byrne has been a part of the force and serves as the only acting officer along with his K-9 and occasionally, reserve officer Larry Johnson will help out month to month. If the Belfield City Council moves forward with this action, the Stark County Sheriff’s Office will absorb Byrne into its department.
“I think it’s an ability for me to further my career, but still stay and be a part of the city of Belfield. (I would) still be able to patrol in this area, utilize the knowledge that I have, the intelligence that I have of this area, the rapport that I have with the community and the kids, but also be able to further my career too,” Byrne said.
The mayor and a few other Belfield city officials will draft up the questionnaire to send out to citizens in the mail within the next few weeks. The next Belfield City Council meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Jan. 12, at the Belfield Theater.