After three hours of discussion on Feb. 2, the two committees working on the feasibility of merging the Gering and Scottsbluff police departments determined that more discussion is needed.
After an overview of how a combined department would be structured, the operations and financial committees gave presentations on department shift structure and financial considerations.
Estimates show that a combined department under current staffing levels of 47 sworn officers and administrators would require an additional $93,000. A scenario that would eliminate one chief and two captains from the force would save $106,000. In both cases, the department would move to staggered 12-hour shifts, eliminating some of the gaps in coverage and reducing overtime.
“Until we decide what structure we’ll have, it’s impossible to determine how much we’ll save, if anything,” said Gering City Council member Jill McFarland. “And that doesn’t consider what funds the money will come from.”
The structure of the proposed combined departments that most of the group supported would be to create a separate political subdivision with its own bureaucracy and taxing authority. The subdivision’s tax asking would presumably result in a reduction of each city’s tax asking. The new political subdivision could also hire its own personnel or transfer them from either of the two cities.
Scottsbluff City Attorney Howard Olsen explained that under state law, the new political subdivision would have to be governed by an inter-agency board with members appointed from city council members from both Gering and Scottsbluff.
Gering City Council member Julie Morrison said most council members have little knowledge of the day-to-day operation of law enforcement and asked whether it’s appropriate for non-professionals to be governing over them.
“I think those who will serve on this board will be responsible to educate themselves on those operations,” Olsen said. “We need to make sure that education takes place.”
One of the major challenges to a proposed merger would be the new department’s pay scale. Salaries for Gering officers would need to be brought up to be comparable with Scottsbluff officers as a first step.
According to the state’s Commission on Industrial Relations, departments must pay officers in line with cities of similar size. A larger merged department would be compared to cities like North Platte, Kearney and Hastings. So, salaries would have to be increased again to meet the similar cities standard. That could potentially add an additional estimated $200,000 to the cost of wages.
“You also have two unions who will have to stay in the loop,” Olsen said. “They need to be a part in forming any new political subdivision.”
Gering resident Darrell Bentley told the committees any new political subdivision would necessarily have to be a long-term commitment. “This isn’t something like taking the garbage and then deciding you don’t want it anymore,” he said. “Once you sign the pen to this, it’s going to be a long-term deal. You have to look down the road and not just at tomorrow.”
Gering resident Kevin Mooney said if the two communities don’t start working together, they’re never going to grow. “The only way we’re going to move forward is if we work together,” he said. “Otherwise, Scottsbluff and Gering will stay just as they have been. We don’t have more people because we’re stuck in the mud working against each other.”
Scottsbluff City Manager Rick Kuckkahn said he predicted we will get to the financial point when even smaller communities will not longer be able to afford their police departments.
“Do you think we’re immune from the economic pressures that big cities are dealing with?” he asked. “We’ll have to follow in their footsteps and it may be sooner than we expect. We may need to look at that in our next budget cycle.”
Kuckkahn continued that with every state suffering to some degree, they’re offering a package that would save money and offer better police protection in a time when everyone else is cutting it.
“No one has really told me how this specifically benefits Gering,” Morrison said. “If it’s such a great idea, why not put it to a vote of the people?”
Scottsbluff City Council members Dave Boeckner and Ray Gonzales both said they want to continue studying the proposal and also educate the public on the benefits a combined department would yield.
But Gering council members said their constituents want a quick resolution to the question. McFarland said in the recent election, two mayoral candidates were strongly opposed to the merger. Seventy percent of the vote went to those two candidates.
The committees agreed to schedule a special public meeting of both city councils in the near future with the only agenda item being the proposed police merger.