By Scott Sullivan
“Good fences make good neighbors,” wrote Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall.” Saugatuck City Council’s Feb. 26 vote to exit its 20-year joint police agreement with Douglas left the latter city’s council Monday mulling what comes next.
Saugatuck, whose half share of the Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department’s annual budget has exceeded $550,000 the last two years, expects to save $220,000 by contracting with the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department for coverage by four deputies.
The SDPD offers 24/7 coverage. Critics claim Sauga-tuck’s shift to a “staffing per need” approach will come at the cost of increased response times and decreased public safety.
Douglas officials say they will be forced to discharge four of the eight fulltime officers based on their seniority, or lack thereof, on the job.
As stands, Saugatuck will exit the shared department June 30 and start with the Sheriff’s office July 1. Douglas City Manager Bill LeFevere told his council Monday Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier had asked him earlier that day whether Douglas would consider extending the joint contract’s termination date until October this year.
Per Section 13(a) of the joint agreement requiring termination notice prior to March 1 to do so at the end of the June 30 fiscal year, said LeFevere, Saugatuck could have given Douglas a one-year notice “or by approaching us to negotiate a mutually-acceptable end date … but they chose neither of those options.
“Extending the termination date,” he went on, “will be problematic and extend liability for Douglas. We normally bring on several part-time officers for the summer months, primarily to benefit Saugatuck.
“The hiring process should be underway by now,” he continued, “and because it isn’t we would be playing catch-up most of the summer.
“Also, because of Sauga-tuck’s action, we anticipate laying off several employees who are already looking for future employment. Assuming some will be successful, we already antici- pate being short-staffed with no ability to backfill those fulltime positions.
“I also anticipate that morale will be an issue as we get closer to the end date and I see no compelling reason to prolong that situation longer than necessary,” LeFevere said.
“The Saugatuck City Council,” he went on, “should have anticipated the impact that choosing a termination date so close to the start of the busy July 4 week would have for their residents, businesses, visitors and the ability of the Sheriff’s Department to properly staff up for the July 1 start date.
“It is not our responsibility to mitigate these impacts on Saugatuck’s behalf,” LeFevere said.
“Kirk came here,” countered Saugatuck City Councilman Barry Johnson, who sat in the audience at the meeting, “to ask how we can help with a transition. We are ready to move and could cut out as soon as April.
“October would give you more time,” he said.
Harrier said Tuesday LeFevere’s memo shared Monday with council “may be a bit misleading.
“I can assure you,” emailed his Douglas peer, “the purpose of me meeting with you was not because the City of Saugatuck and (Sheriff’s office) are not prepared to address Saugatuck’s needs. I specifically recall saying in our meeting today that the ACSO and City of Saugatuck are fully prepared to proceed as planned.
“I stated to you the resolution the Saugatuck City Council passed last week authorized me to enter into arrangements with Douglas for the provision of police services as is mutually agreeable so as to enhance the likelihood of a mutually beneficial transition,” Harrier continued.
“As a courtesy, I asked if you thought there is benefit to the citizens of Douglas and Saugatuck and/or the employees of the SDPD in working out arrangements for police services a little bit later than July. If not, then we should discuss the necessary transition steps moving forward form this point.
“I appreciate you discussing this matter with your council and Saugatuck will plan to move forward as planned,” Harrier’s email said.
Johnson, asked Monday how Saugatuck’s new arrangement with county deputies would affect security at Saugatuck Middle/High School, he said the city was exploring stationing the new officers in that building.
“I don’t think they have space there,” said Douglas Councilman Greg Harvath.
Council agreed not to offer an extension. “I think the ship has sailed,” said Mayor Linda Anderson.
Johnson read a memo at Saugatuck’s Feb. 26 council meeting saying Saugatuck had approached both Douglas and the Sheriff’s office to determine if either would meet goals set by council.
“Douglas did not provide any options or changes,” it said. “The Sheriff’s office proposed a schedule and staffing levels that provided for the needed level of public safety while reducing costs.”
LeFevere has disputed this. He told Douglas council Feb. 19 Saugatuck had intentionally misrepresented several issues, in particular that Douglas would not work with Saugatuck to find ways to reduce police costs.
“By the resolutions and communications provided,” read minutes from that meeting quoting his manager’s statement, “it is evident that Douglas tried several times to have a discussion on service costs. And even though more calls originate in Saugatuck, they are paying just 50 percent of costs.”
Anderson said she, LeFevere, Harvath, Harrier and Saugatuck Mayor Ken Trester had met Jan. 5 to discuss police coverage.
“What they (Saugatuck) made clear,” she said, “is they wanted Douglas to pay more and give them a break. That was the bottom line.”
“The City of Saugatuck,” the Feb. 19 minutes quote LeFevere telling his council, “has tried to maintain that this decision is about saving money, but by reviewing the documents and statement in the recommendation (approved seven days later to contract with the county) it is obvious this is a control issue.”
Included in Monday’s Douglas council packet was an April 15, 1976, Commercial Record story titled “Joint Policing Ends” indicating the neighbor cities’ disputes aren’t new.
“Joint policing by the villages of Saugatuck and Douglas (neither was then a city) has ended — at least for the time,” it said.
“The dissolution of combined patrolling apparently would not have been mentioned at the Saugatuck council meeting April 5 except that James Boyce III, the village’s assessor, asked, ‘What happened to the joint police department?’
“President James Christenson,” the story continued, “said the villages, at the request of Douglas, have gone back to the old system of separate patrols, with one department backing up the other if necessary. For more than a year the two departments worked together, patrolling the two villages as one.
“Christenson said the cooperation stopped because of personality conflicts — ‘It boils down to you can’t have two bosses.’
“He said he is not giving up on the idea of one police department,” the story from 1976 continued, “ but it will probably have to be done by vote, similar to the planned vote this spring on a fire protection district for Saugatuck, Douglas and Saugatuck Township.
“Police committee chairman Julius Van Oss said Douglas apparently was short on manpower and money, while Saugatuck feels strongly that having two men in a patrol car is a must, especially at night.
“Christenson commended Saugatuck police chief Lyle Jones for staying within the police budget the past year and said the village will try to keep the same budget this year. About $43,000 was spent on police in Saugatuck.
“Christenson said the council should hold a special meeting soon with the whole police force to discuss approaches to law enforcement,” the story said.