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Gering rejects police merger (2)
March 03, 2011 Jerry Purvis    Photo by Dawn Bowen/Gering Citizen

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The Scottsbluff City Council unanimously joined the 7-1 vote of the Gering City Council to drop a proposed formal merger of both police departments under a separate political subdivision.

Instead, the councils agreed to enhance the inter-local police agreement in place since 1999. The agreement outlines areas where the police offer assistance between the departments.

Gering Police Chief Mel Griggs outlined many areas where the police departments are already offering mutual assistance.

“I think the police chiefs should continue talking with each other on a regular basis,” said Gering council member Jill McFarland. “That’s just part of the job that you continue to look for best practices and try to improve your individual departments to be more cost effective. That’s just the way it works.”

Both councils agreed the police departments should continue examining their entire operations and developing ways they can do more with fewer resources. The vote took place during a joint meeting of the Gering and Scottsbluff City Councils last week at the Gering Civic Center. Approximately 115 local residents were in attendance.

A possible merger of local police departments had been discussed for almost a year. Some of the challenges revolved around the added cost to both cities and providing adequate police coverage.

But for Gering residents, the big objection was the loss of autonomy over their own police department. A newly-created political subdivision would add another layer of bureaucracy between the residents and the city. And many believed a merged police department would only be the first step toward merging both cities.

“The people of Gering want to be the city of Gering,” local business owner Kent Ewing told the group. “With a merger, we’d lose part of that. The officers of Gering have the ability to be a proactive department. They know their citizens.”
McFarland told the group there are costs involved in a merger that would have nothing to do with dollars and cents.

“One person told me when he has an emergency, a Gering officer responds, one he probably knows on a first name basis,” she said. “If you lose that, it’s a cost.”

She added that if officers aren’t in Gering and able to respond quickly to emergencies, that’s another cost.

“The overriding comment I’m hearing is that the people of Gering want to be an independent entity,” McFarland said. “They’re not against cooperation and sharing, but they don’t want to be merged into another community. That’s exactly what we would be doing with this.”

McFarland made motion calling for the City of Gering to discontinue formal discussions on a merged police department. It also called for the departments to continue pursuing enhancements to the existing inter-local agreement.

The lone no vote was from Gering council member Joyce Hillman-Kortum. She assumed that the motion would stop any effort toward working together.
“No one wants their taxes increased, but they have to be unless we work together,” she said. “We’re already taking money from other areas to support the police budget and the future is going to be brutal. You have to keep your options open.”

Gering Mayor Ed Mayo reassured Hillman-Kortum the motion only stopped the formal merger. The cities will continue working together on numerous projects, both in the police department and in other areas.

After the meeting, Mayo said the city is open to working with its sister city, but he said he is pleased the merger issue has been laid to rest.
“It’s time it went to bed,” he said, “and there’s no reason why we can’t work on enhancing our inter-local agreement.”

Mayo added that the cities should cooperate together to enhance the services they provide.

“But that needs to involve the sheriff as well,” he said.

Sheriff Mark Overman said the Scottsbluff and Gering police departments have a tradition of working together with the Scotts Bluff County Sheriff’s Department. Overman, who attended most of the merger committee meetings last year, even before he was elected as sheriff in November, said Thursday’s decision was a good example of government at work.

“It’s up to these elected officials, city council members, to decide what the path is going to be. This is government at work,” he said.

While some in attendance expressed dissatisfaction with the Gering City Council’s decision, the majority of those who spoke during the meeting and expressed their opinions after the meeting said they were pleased with the decision to lay the merger issue to rest. Most everyone agreed that the two cities working together cooperatively is essential.

Alice Wineman, a former councilwoman who served on the Gering City Council for 16 years, said she was pleased with the outcome of the meeting.

“I really think that the Gering City Council made the wisest decision,” she said. “It has always been the intent to work together with whatever entity.”
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