|Mayors explain more on proposed police merger|
|March 31, 2010 Jerry Purvis|
Gering Mayor Susan Wiedeman and Scottsbluff Mayor Randy Meininger fielded questions from an overflow crowd of 100-plus on the proposed merger of both cities’ police departments.
The initial round of questions were submitted in written form, which were then submitted to the mayors by a facilitator in order to keep the meeting moving.
The questions were taken in written form so they could be forwarded to the specific group that is researching those questions.
“This community has survived because we’ve worked together,” Meininger said. “In the past we’ve had separate jails and separate communications, but that changed by working together.”
Meininger said the Scottsbluff City Council realized it would have to work more closely with its counterparts in Gering and Terrytown, especially as revenues began to shrink in about 2007.
Since that time, Scottsbluff discussed with Gering the possibility of establishing a joint landfill. Both councils were also open to other areas where they could decrease costs without cutting services to residents. And consolidation of police services came up several times.
In March of 2010, the city councils formed two task forces to investigate the feasibility of a merger from operational and financial standpoints.
“Our timeline is to hopefully have some concrete information available by June 1,” Wiedeman said. “Before anything can happen, interlocal agreements will have to be made and agreed on by both city councils. Those agreements will be the toughest part.”
To help facilitate hiring, a bill that would allow the cities to merge its Civil Service Commissions awaits Gov. Heineman’s signature.
When asked about cost savings, Meininger said merging the departments would help put more officers on the streets and eliminate some of the administration top-heaviness.
One question submitted in writing asked whether Gering citizens would be allowed to vote on a potential merger.
“The merger of the police departments would probably not go to a vote of the people,” Wiedeman said. “That doesn’t mean the public has no say. More public hearings will be necessary before this can be done. Our goal is to make the best decision for both communities.”
Wiedeman said the financial committee hasn’t developed hard numbers on how a combined department would save money. However, she said they hope most of the cost savings will be through attrition of officers rather than termination.
Meininger said both cities are experiencing decreasing revenues and increasing costs. In fact, Scottsbluff has had to pull money out of the city’s enterprise funds to support day-to-day operations, which he said isn’t good management.
Meininger said funding basic city operations will continue to be a challenge, especially with cuts in the state budget that affects cities. “I think we’re going to see a decrease in services somehow. We’ll have to fight to see our infrastructure remains strong. That’s the lifeblood of our community.”
Wiedeman added that if the merger doesn’t come about, there’s no guarantee Gering’s property tax asking can remain the same as the past eight years. Also, electric rates might increase due to the city relying more on that enterprise fund to support basic city services.
Another question asked where the majority of the crime is occurring in the community. Wiedeman said that because Scottsbluff is about twice the size of Gering, it would be expected to see more crime there.
“I look at the Gering police logs every day,” Wiedeman said. “I can’t say there are a large number of calls. I do know a lot of the calls are for dogs running loose and cats in traps. There are about three to five calls a day for animal control. Of course, some of the major investigations won’t show up in the logs, such as drug investigations.”
One question asked why Gering city employees, especially police officers, can’t have a public opinion on the merger.
“One thing to stress, we want them to talk, but they should know the facts and say the facts,” Wiedeman said. “When opinions and personal feelings get involved, it sometimes skews what the facts may be. Perception can be different for different people.”
Meininger agreed, saying that it’s important for police officers to follow the chain of command in letting their concerns be known.
Several members of the audience also spoke. Among them was Terrytown Mayor Kent Greenwalt, whose town received police protection from Scottsbluff. He said that because Terrytown can’t afford its own police force, he’s fully supportive of a merger.
Gering resident Mike Mead, who has 16 years of experience in law enforcement, spoke against a merger. He said from his experience in Florida, it rarely works effectively.
Another public hearing is planned for sometime after June 1, when more data is available as to the feasibility of a potential police department merger.