The Belfield City Council met Tuesday evening at the Belfield Theater to continue discussions on whether they should disband their police department and have Stark County absorb the one employee entity — an option still being considered by all parties.
“We call the police department and we get a voicemail or we don’t get someone live. I know that’s hard and it’s something we’ve heard for quite some time. When we were in the height of the oil boom, we had as many as five full-time officers and part-time officers employed with the police department. We were able to provide pretty much coverage for our city 24/7,” Byrne said. “Retention and the ability to hire is extremely difficult. My biggest fear is ending up on the front page of The Dickinson Press for something negative for our town. That’s something I won’t stand for. I will be stubborn in that to make sure we hire the right people.”
The specifics of the merger are not finalized, with ongoing conversations and review being undertaken by the Stark County State’s Attorney Office and its new State's Attorney Amanda Englestad on what the merger would look like, but preliminary discussions would see a proposed budget of $215,000 and hiring two additional deputies.
“We, as citizens of Stark County, already pay taxes to Stark County to protect us. So they have to — if we lose our police force — come in. So this is so they can put two more members on their team. One that would have dedicated hours in the city limits. The second would have a short response time on this side of the county,” Councilman Edward Braun said. “... No we’re not looking to not have any officers not in the city limits and no police present. That’s not what we’re looking at.”
From the questionnaire that the Belfield City Council sent out at the end of the December — which requested input from the citizens on this merger — several citizens from Belfield expressed their opinions during Tuesday’s meeting.
“I just know that several people have been very confused about the letter. There’s tons of questions and not much has been addressed. You may even want to present something a little bit more understanding for people,” one concerned resident stated at the meeting.
Belfield citizen and former councilman Frank Schaff stated that he believes the police force should stay in the city.
“Things are different now, but I still think that our police force … (should) stay as is. No disrespect. I pay taxes in both city and county. But coming up in the future, there’s going to be a lot of budget crunching, not just only for the cities, (but) for the county and for the state. As far as your proposal, I don’t agree with that,” Schaff said.
Another resident noted, “My biggest concern is what’s going to happen when something major happens in this town, and you have Stark County is 30 minutes away?”
Lee responded to the concerns of citizens on response times, noting that the two additional deputies will allow for more coverage and patrol over Belfield.
“There’s 186 hours in a week. Right now, you guys have somebody on for 40 hours a week… What we can offer and again," Lee said. "I’m not trying to sell you guys something here, this was brought to me.
"Do I want to take over the police force in the city of Belfield? Not really. Will I? Absolutely, because I think this could benefit your community and I think we can work well... Who wants to be in law enforcement right now? Right?” Lee said, as the crowd snickered. “I tell you we’re not getting the cream of the crop anymore. It’s tough to find good people.”
Byrne, who is limited to 40 hours a week, explained the concerns with a one man department covering a city.
“... Maybe we’ve done a really good job of being there for this community that when folks call, we do our darndest to be there. I don’t want to burn out; I want to keep doing this for the next 15 to 20 years. If I keep going on the route I’m going, I can make it a year or two,” Byrne said. “And I understand where the community is coming from. There are some things that I need the community to understand from my perspective, and we need a game plan on this to be able to work together to communicate what’s best for us moving forward. Response time is massive for the community, for other first responders — our fire department, our EMS — having that backup there.”
While smaller law enforcement agencies used to be the standard for towns such as South Heart, mergers are becoming the norm, Lee stated.
“... You are seeing this across the United States that these smaller police departments are dissolving and going away. It’s just not cost effective. That’s why these guys have such a tough, hard decision right now,” Lee said, pointing to the mayor and four council members sitting on stage. “Do we want to fix our infrastructure or do we want a police department? Do we want water and sewer? It’s going to come down to that at some point, folks.”
The Belfield City Council concluded the discussion by proposing a public forum on this topic, which is tentatively set for February. The next council meeting will be at 5 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Belfield Theater.