Frankford council to revisit police hiring

Frankford Town Council members are on the cusp of deciding whether or not to hire a police chief for the town. But they decided at their April 2 meeting to table that decision until the town’s financial picture is a little clearer.

“They want to revisit it once the new fiscal year is here and they have explored all possible avenues for revenue,” Town Manager Terry Truitt told the Coastal Point on Wednesday, following a late executive session in which the council discussed their next move on the issue.

The town’s fiscal year begins on July 1, with budget workshops and public hearings set to take place starting in mid-May.

Frankford has relied upon neighboring town police departments and state troopers for law enforcement for nearly a decade, since problems with town police operations led to the firing of officers and related legal action from 1996 that is only now being resolved.

The decision to table any vote on once again hiring a police chief came after resident Eunice Holloway protested the concept, on the grounds that she feels the town can’t financially support a police department.

Holloway noted the need for the town to house the new police department, complete with secure facilities for record storage and the keeping of prisoners, both juveniles and adults. The town has a building that Council President Greg Johnson said was ready to be renovated for that purpose. But Holloway was leery of the costs of such a renovation.

She also referenced the costs of insurance for the police department, of the new chief’s salary and benefits, of buying and maintaining a police vehicle and the basic use of a new police station.

“I don’t see how this town can finance a police department,” Holloway said, referencing efforts in nearby Millville to start its own police department and expectation that that town’s rapid growth would fuel starting a police department much more easily than in Frankford.

Real costs of police hiring unknown

In Frankford, officials have been given an estimate of $155,000 for the first year of operation on a new police department, complete with the purchase of a vehicle and renovation of the building for a police station, as well as salary and other costs.

A $25,000 grant has been given to Frankford by Sussex County for police use, as has been the case for all local police departments in recent years, and the town has allocated another $52,000 toward its startup costs. But reaching the $155,000 start-up estimate — or the $100,000-plus estimated cost for nearby Ocean View to keep one officer equipped and on the payroll for one year — is a serious commitment for the town and its citizens.

The town solicitor has opposed the move at this time, due to possible litigation issues, Truitt told those present at the meeting. Their auditor also feels the town is not fiscally ready to do so based on estimated costs from policing in neighboring Dagsboro, she said, but did not formally reply to the town’s request for a financial analysis and official recommendation on the issue.

Holloway said she felt the town should stick with relying on Delaware State Police for its primary police protection. Johnson noted that the town typically paid the DSP some $60,000 per year for service that primarily consisted of radar-supported speed enforcement, before discontinuing its formal contract with the agency. That number was preferable for Holloway, even though it represents less present protection.

“You’re buying a pig in a poke,” she said of the notion of hiring a police chief, adding, “You’d better find out what it’s going to cost you.”

That issue of realistic costs has remained a key point in the town’s ability to make a decision on whether or not to hire the new police officer.

Need accepted but costs a concern

Johnson noted that the town had opted to rely upon the Sussex County Association of Police Chiefs to recommend a candidate for the job and to provide it with some basic information, rather than trust town officials to hire such a specialist.

The candidate recommended by the SCAPC is currently an officer in another town, fully trained and certified, and has been enthusiastically supported by council members as a great find for the job — if they have one. Truitt said the officer had even provided the town with “a wealth of information” on fees, fines and ordinances as part of his application process — recommending himself with that initiative.

But with just 450 taxpayers in Frankford, the burden of an additional $100,000 to $155,000 per year in town expenses works out to between $222 and $350 in annual tax increases per property, on average, not counting the county grant. If the annual grant continues, the increase potentially drops to $166 or less, assuming it is all assessed in property taxes.

Town officials weren’t planning on such a hike, instead looking at spreading the cost across a number of areas. But the notion still spooked a number of citizens.

“I think you’re wading in deep water,” Holloway warned, emphasizing the impact a tax increase would have on the town’s seniors and others of limited income. “You can’t rely on traffic fines.”

Ted Banks, a property owner in the town, said he was also concerned about any move to hire a police chief now. “I agree that you need it, but I don’t think you’re ready to afford it,” he said.

Veteran Council Member and several-time Police Commissioner Jesse Truitt agreed. “The numbers just don’t flow,” he said. “Before you contract with him for three years, you’d better be able to pay him.”

Jesse Truitt said he also felt the town would be better off sticking with the DSP, or perhaps looking into a charter change that would allow it to again share police officers with neighboring Dagsboro.

Council members took the wrestling over the issue into their executive session Tuesday night, coming out with a decision to hold off on deciding.

“They moved not hire him at this current time,” Terry Truitt said.

Instead, Johnson has been charged with contacting engineer Chuck Hauser of Davis, Bowen and Friedel to see about having the town’s ordinances, rates and fees reviewed and updated, much as Dagsboro had done in 2006.

“There have been no rate increases in a long time, and the council feels that would be a good revenue source,” Terry Truitt said. Realistically, the alternative could be a $25 or $50 property tax hike, she noted. But even without hiring a police chief, the town manager said she felt a tax hike of some degree wouldn’t automatically be averted.

Despite the concern and potential for increased taxes and fees, Terry Truitt noted, the town’s finances are in comparatively good shape. “We’re in the black,” she said, adding that the council had decided merely to wait and see exactly what the town’s finances looked like going into the 2008 fiscal year before they made a decision on the hiring of a police chief. A surplus could be put directly into a police start-up fund.

“He wasn’t offered the job, and he wasn’t told no,” she said of the candidate. “He is willing to ride it out.”

Water, trash, festival and goods discussed

Also on April 3, council members opted to skip a potential townwide trash collection this spring, voting unanimously to look at a possible fall pickup as they sort out a new hauling contract.

The existing hauler increased the town’s hauling rate by some $1,264 per month for the coming year, prompting them to also vote on Tuesday to put the contract out for bid again. The advertisements for the bids were to go out immediately, with submissions to be opened at the council’s May meeting.

Council members did agree to a spring yard sale, however, voting to set the townwide yard sale on Saturday, April 28, with a rain date of May 5.

The council also unanimously voted to renew their contract for yard maintenance at the Justice of the Peace building, at a cost of $1,550 per year.

Council members were agreeable to an extension of town water service to a nearby property, voting to allow Tidewater Utilities to price the cost of the extension, which the property owner had volunteered to pay.

Jesse Truitt and Tidewater’s Clarence Quillen reported a number of problems with the town’s water system in the previous month, including three leaks — since repaired — and the overloading of a motor at the water plant by too much electricity. The latter was to be repaired in the immediate future.

Quillen also reported the need to reorganize the town’s hydrant flow testing and to hire someone to do state-mandated annual inspections, for which he supplied a proposal.

Council Members Vincent Leon-Check and Cheryl Workman reported on plans to possibly develop a spring festival for the townsfolk.

“We want to invite the community to get together,” Leon-Check noted, adding that he also wanted to use the occasion to reach out to the town’s Hispanic community and planned to go on neighborhood visits to encourage them to become an active part of the wider Frankford community.

Bypass and planning issues loom

Work on Frankford’s comprehensive plan is also under way, with an April 17 meeting set at which the public and town officials will be encouraged to give input. The plan is being developed with the assistance of the University of Delaware’s Institute for Public Administration, which also handled Bethany Beach’s most recent comp plan update.

Finally, in a related matter, property owner Jim Bennett reported that his work with the Delaware Department of Transportation’s Millsboro South Working Group was nearing its final stages. The group is working to develop a recommendation for DelDOT on one of two plans for renovations to Route 113, including the notion of a bypass.

Bennett said three meetings were slated for June, at which final public input on the plans would be taken and a recommendation made. He said he was concerned that little or no input had come from citizens of Frankford and Dagsboro, and county residents outside those towns.

He said properties and residents in those areas could be severely affected by the final plan for the Route 113 corridor, as the planned “Eastern Bypass” runs through the Frankford area — among others — cutting through farms and other properties and running near to Frankford Elementary School. It also is set to join up directly with Route 26.

Bennett said he was concerned that many of the affected people were unaware that they would be significantly affected, instead thinking of the discussion as a Route 113 issue that affects Selbyville and Millsboro. He said Selbyville favored making Route 113 as an express highway with adjacent access roads, to preserve the town’s commercial traffic, while Millsboro favored the bypass option.

As a result, Bennett said, both Dagsboro and Frankford stood to decide the balance of the recommendation. He asked the Frankford council to discuss a formal position and said he’d also asked Dagsboro’s leaders to do the same. He planned to attend the April 17 comp plan meeting in Frankford to provide additional information and maps, and to answer any questions.