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Mills River police department would cost $700,000 a year

MILLS RIVER — A full police department with a chief and six officers would cost Mills River $1.5 million over the first three years and $700,000 a year when fully staffed, a consultant told the Mills River Town Council Thursday night. Based on Mills River’s tax base, an annual budget that size would require a tax increase of roughly 7 cents a year, or more than triple the current rate of 2.25 cents per $100 valuation.

The report from Greg Jarvies, a former Chapel Hill police chief and consultant who advises local government on policing, gave the town council a cost figure for the first time. The town council is grappling with a plan to deliver a required service under state law after Henderson County withdrew from a contract to provide a sheriff’s deputy for “enhanced” law enforcement coverage in a dispute over the cost.
The town council now has two cost estimates on the table to provide a service that would meet the state requirement: $712,000 to $950,000 to provide garbage service and $700,000 a year to operate a new Mills River Police Department.
Council members were noncommittal on taking the plunge. In a separate action they signaled that they had not given up on renewing the sheriff's contract. The council adopted a resolution saying that the town "in good faith wishes to renew negotiations with Henderson County and the Office of the Sheriff for possible continuance of enhanced law enforcement services beyond the 2016-17 fiscal year."

Council members gave no indication that they're willing to move ahead with the new police department, which would cost roughly seven times more annually than the town is spending on one 40-hour-a-week sheriff's deputy.

“There’s a whole lot more in there than I realized,” Councilman Roger Snyder said of the detailed report. “I was just expecting some figures.”

Jarvies said that if the town decided to establish a police department it should do so incrementally — hiring an adviser first, then a chief, then officers until it staffed up to a full department with a chief and six officers. “Most importantly, get the public involved in the development of the police department because this is their agency," he said. "You've got to determine what you want and the public is one of the primary if not the primary determinant of what you want because it’s their police department."

"Do you ever see new departments fail?" Councilman Shanon Gonce asked.

Most do succeed, Jarvies said, adding that the town should establish the agency's values and mission.

"They are and will be the most visible representation of what you stand for and what elected officials stand for," he said. "If they see the cop doing something great, they might thank them, they may not. If they do something wrong, you'll hear about it.... The one thing you don't want to have is a citizenry not be proud of your police department."

While seven officers is below the number per capita of neighboring departments in Fletcher and Mills River, that force could cover the town — with some backup from other agencies, Jarvies said.

"Seven officers would allow the MRPD to patrol the town twenty-four hours per day with one or two officers, including the chief who should be expected to be a 'working' chief handling basic patrol and call response duties whenever possible," he said in the report. "Seven officers would allow some relief factor for training and regularly scheduled days off though it will not allow the agency to provide specialty services such as major criminal investigations or major crash investigations.

"For at least the first two or three years those services would likely need to be handled by the Henderson County Sheriff's Office, the NC Highway Patrol or the State Bureau of Investigation. Also, MRPD will need administrative support from current town employees or might engage the services of a newly created part-time clerical position.

Jarvies worked with George Erwin, the former three-term Henderson County sheriff, to draft the report. When Mayor Larry Freeman asked Erwin his opinion of the situation, the former sheriff implored the council to keep talking to the county.

 "The main thing here is we all live here, we all know one another, we see each other at the grocery store," Erwin said said. "You have to do what you think is right for Mills River but on the other hand (county commissioners) were elected by the people of Mills River as well. The biggest thing I would say is keep the lines of communication open. I'm a trained hostage negotiator and that's what you do is keep the lines of communication open ... with the sheriff and the county commissioners and Steve Wyatt, the county manager. ... Everybody knows, I've had my issues with county commissioners in the past but we still had things we could agree on and keep the lines of communication open."

"This is just one step in the process," Freeman said.

"The report was received well by council as you saw and what we'll do next is reach out to the county" about resuming negotiations for service, Town Manager Jeff Wells said. "We'll be approaching them for discussions very soon." A third possibility, a change in state law allowing Mills River to count parks and recreation as a service, would be the least costly solution. "But that's not something we can count on," Wells said.

State Rep. Chuck McGrady said he's willing to explore the possibility of that legislation but was not sure the General Assembly could pass it in this year's short session.

NOTE: An earlier version of this story reported incorrectly that the annual cost of a police department in year 3 would be $1.5 million. The annualized cost in the third year would be $702,683, based on the consultant's recommendation.