Traverse City News and Events

Law Enforcement Leaders Plead For More Resources

By Beth Milligan | Oct. 31, 2019

Law enforcement leaders from the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office, Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and Family and Probate Courts pleaded with county commissioners for more funding during a Wednesday budget hearing, citing struggles to manage increasing case loads and service calls with unchanging resources. Administrators will consider their appeals – including a Sheriff’s Office request to add two employees in 2020 to create a full-time interdiction team – as they work to finalize next year’s budget with commissioners in November.

Several department heads were able to make their case directly to commissioners for adding more staff after County Administrator Nate Alger prepared a balanced budget for 2020 that emphasized a “status quo” approach to personnel. Alger rejected almost all of approximately a dozen requests to add staff positions next year throughout various departments, citing the need to be fiscally cautious and ensure the county could maintain existing services. But law enforcement asked commissioners to consider the importance of public welfare and safety in prioritizing their requests – including one from Sheriff Tom Bensley to add a sergeant and deputy that would allow the department to launch a full-time interdiction team.

“We have requested for many, many, many years additional people,” Bensley said. “It's been 15 years since the county paid for…an additional officer.” Department data shows that in 2003, the Sheriff’s Office had 68 total sworn-in personnel; as of 2018, that figure was at 66. In the same time period, calls for service almost doubled, from 23,187 to 45,224. Staffing an interdiction team – at a cost of just under $170,000 annually for the two new positions – would allow the department to focus on drug prosecutions and targeted enforcement in high-crime and traffic-concern areas, Bensley said.

The Sheriff’s Office has operated an interdiction team, or a specially trained unit designed to combat certain types of criminal activity, on a part-time basis since 2016. In that time, the team has arrested 267 individuals, conducted 1,036 contacts, and seized over 857 grams of drugs including marijuana, cocaine, crack, meth, and heroin (the team has since stopped targeting marijuana). Michigan State Police Lt. Kip Belcher said the interdiction team works collaboratively with the Traverse Narcotics Team to stop the flow of drugs into Grand Traverse County and take down large-scale dealers and distributors.

“To do that, we've got to have sufficient levels of information coming in, and the interdiction team would be equipped to make that happen much more effectively with added personnel,” he said. County Prosecuting Attorney Noelle Moeggenberg also supported Bensley's proposal. “The ability of the team to focus on an area hit by crime, keep residents and their property safe, and deter crime is unique and not a task that can be accomplished by road patrol,” she wrote in a memo to commissioners. “A full-time team would also allow road patrol to focus on traffic, and it would reduce the number of calls to which they must respond.”

Moeggenberg is also seeking the addition of a staff member in 2020: a level-one assistant prosecuting attorney. Moeggenberg said her office has employed the same number of attorneys – seven – since 1998, dropping as low as six attorneys from 2009 to 2013. In the same time period, the county’s population has grown by more than 12,000, technology has “increased significantly” the complexity of cases, several treatment courts have been implemented, and the state has increased its spending on defending the indigent through the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, according to Moeggenberg. “We are left to compete without additional funds or staffing,” she said.

Moeggenberg said she was willing to explore ways to help offset the $69,235 annual cost for the new position, including higher payments for services rendered, increased costs to process Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and prosecution costs collected on cases. “However, as a public safety office, with statutorily mandated duties, it is not practical or possible that staffing plans be created based on our ability to generate revenue,” she continued. Probate/Family Division Judge Melanie Stanton also asked to increase hours for her judicial assistant from 36 to 40 hours a week at an estimated annual cost of $7,205, noting that the age for juvenile cases is set to be raised from 16 to 17 in 2021, resulting in a looming larger caseload for an already inundated court.

County commissioners appeared sympathetic to law enforcement’s requests Wednesday, reiterating their appreciation for the work done by the various departments. Commissioner Sonny Wheelock said his struggle was “how we’re going to pay for this,” saying administrators and commissioners could evaluate if there was a way to move funds around to free up budgetary room for the requests. “We can look at the budget a little better, look at the numbers…we may be able to push a little here to there back and forth,” he said. “There's no question that there's some valid argument for these positions. It's just a matter of figuring out how and where are we going to pay for them.” Commissioner Betsy Coffia also told The Ticker she hopes administrators will sit down and review the requests in more detail with department heads to see if there’s a way they can be accommodated in the final budget.

For his part, Alger says he will do just that, noting he has plans to meet with Bensley next week “in an attempt to identify possible considerations surrounding his requests.” Alger said he’d also be further investigating Stanton’s request. “From what I heard today, the commissioners would like me to continue to work with the sheriff and prosecutor, and the commissioners have asked for additional information for their consideration,” he said. However, Alger cautions that “without new and compelling information,” his final budget recommendation is “unlikely to change significantly.”

Ultimately, commissioners have final budgetary approval and could direct Alger to reallocate funds to add new positions, even if it's not part of the recommended budget. Coffia suggested commissioners hold a strategic planning session soon so that the board could set an agreed-upon vision for spending priorities going forward. “It’s very important to give our staff clear direction on where we as a body want to go,” she said. Bensley also emphasized that the final decision for bulking up law enforcement operations wasn’t up to administrators, but to commissioners.

“I understand the county being very conservative (fiscally), but I think this board needs to set some priorities. Is public safety a priority for this board?” he asked. “If it is, I would hope that you'd direct the resources to public safety.”

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