Council considering SBPD issues with budget plans

The South Bethany Police Department is the subject of staffing and building discussions as the town prepares its 2019-fiscal-year budget.

Looking to trim a roughly $2.5 million budget, the town council likely will not fill a vacancy left by police officer Megan Loulou, who recently took position at another nearby department.

That move would return South Bethany to six fulltime officers, as the town had several years ago.

“We think we can get along with fewer,” Council Treasurer Don Boteler reported from the Budget & Finance Committee.

South Bethany would have the same manpower as before 2015, when the additional position was created.

The town’s 24-hour police coverage would be tight, but still doable. It would really be threatened if a second officer left (which Police Chief Troy Crowson said is likely) and the council chose not to fill that hypothetical vacancy.

“We are fine at six, and if we lose anything else, it would be greatly impacted. I think we’re going to have a short staff this summer, and we’re going to have to adjust … with the anticipation of another officer leaving,” Crowson said.

However, they do have a plan to accommodate those eventualities.

The police station will rely more heavily on its a part-time seasonal officer, whose duties include data entry, daily barricade setup, probably some beach patrol on ATV and more.

Crowson has advocated for the additional seasonal administrative assistant, which the town council also considered cutting. Although that person sells parking permits on the weekends, he or she also answers phones and does paperwork that otherwise eat up a police officer’s patrol time.

The Town’s financial auditor has recommended processing all financial transactions in town hall, so Crowson said the administrative assistant could go there, but that their other work is important.

“With the reduction in staff, they’re going to be down to single officer now,” said Crowson, adding that he dislikes the officer doing all the desk work, plus patrols, traffic stops and complaints.

Meanwhile, with the current police dispatcher/administrative assistant having left for a new job, the council will also consider dropping that position from 40 hours to 30 hours. (It had just increased in 2017 from the previous 35 hours.)

The council will continue budget and staffing discussions at their March 22 meeting, at 2 p.m. The budget will likely be finalized in April.

Town preps for police station project

After bids for a building expansion at the police department came in way over budget, the Town has pursued a more austere path of “repurposing” the building.

Council Member Tim Saxton has made it clear he doesn’t want the Town to pay a cent of the estimated $80,000 cost until all police grants or donations have been exhausted.

“We have had the mindset we were going to commit reserves,” countered Mayor Pat Voveris.

“I’m all for funding it with grant funding,” Crowson said. “Everything we’ve done to the building has been grant funding so far.”

But he warned that the police budget may need other increases, since items including ammunition and bulletproof vests are about to need restocking.

Multiple experts have told South Bethany that the police building presents some major liabilities, including for safety of staff, visitors and detainees; personal privacy; weapons safety; evidence security; and escape prevention.

Crowson said he believes (and the council agreed) that he’s found a way to improve safety; eliminate the “multipurpose” rooms; and provide adequate space for all the various enforcement operations.

The current “multipurpose” room is inefficiently housing a locker, kitchen and armory. So the armory would move. The separate locker room would get a small shower (to help officers dealing with pepper spray, bodily fluids, illegal substances, death investigations and long coastal storms). The kitchen and evidence rooms would become standalone rooms. The dispatcher’s station would also move.

The reconfiguration would involve moving and building some new interior walls, but the exterior shell would remain the same. A professional engineer is now drawing up the plans and official bid package.

In the future, the police would seek grants for more safety precautions and relocate the reception entrance.

“We’re on track for reducing liability,” Crowson said.

So far, the police station has completed the $20,000 Phase 1, which included separation of the evidence and detainee processing rooms; new electric key cards; new detention bench; new evidence lockers; and more.

Public questions

police morale

When police lives are potentially on the line with every traffic stop, trust in the job and colleagues is especially important.

But resident Daniel Cowell said he doesn’t believe the morale of South Bethany police officers is in a good place.

He said that stemmed from several recent issues: the building project being downgraded from an expansion to a repurposing; an employment study being kept secret, despite resulting in rank and pay changes; public yard signs that read “No Outsourcing”; and no major discussion of police morale.

Cowell said he first heard such unhappy talk at the local fire hall, since law-enforcement and the fire service are typically tight-knit communities, especially in a small town.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and you’ve got to pay attention to the smoke. … That boat is still rocking, so far as I’m concerned and the many attempts and long hours [the town council] put in to try to rectify the problems … I don’t think has been sufficient to resolve the problems that I see,” Cowell said.

Signs of unhappy employees can include complaints, passive-aggressive behavior and employees leaving.

“None of them are good for the health for this community,” he said, especially when policing is an expensive investment for towns, and police have to trust and depend on each other in stressful situations.

“I think we’re losing people … and if you want 24-hour coverage, which I assume all of us do, you can’t cut through the muscle and cut to the bone and expect 24-hour coverage,” Cowell said.

He also complained that the Town kept secret the results of a CPSM employment study of the police department. The council had asked CPSM to submit the study to their attorney and cited “attorney-client privilege” for not releasing the report.

“It was never made public, and it think that roiled the issue still further. I don’t see that as being a matter of employee-client privilege, because if you hire a consultant, you are the consultee, and that report comes to you because you paid for it. What you do with it is something else,” Cowell said.

“If you want to take it to a lawyer, and he tells you what to do, that’s client-attorney privilege. … The fact that the department itself didn’t see it did not help the issue. It did not help them feel like they were playing on a level playing field of trust with the council.”

Voveris responded that all other parts of the process were public, including the votes for action.

“The recommendations that they made [which] we put in place have been totally transparent. So there’s your report. … There are things in there we didn’t act on. There were things we didn’t feel we need, and we didn’t like the message,” Voveris said.

As for sharing the document, “I don’t see a value to it at all,” she said, “because I think we’ve been very transparent. I think South Bethany is a great place to work. … I think it’s just time that we all get down to business and we get focused and we move forward.”

Councilwoman Carol Stevenson questioned whether the council should share the CPSM report with the police chief and town manager to “clear the air,” but she also added pointedly, toward Crowson, “Morale, from my way of thinking, comes from the top and how the top reacts to changes.”

“It also based on changes that are made. … We’re functioning through the changes,” Crowson said, but when employees leave, there is an effect.

Crowson has indicated that other officers might depart soon.

Cowell also said he hasn’t gotten the impression that the council is dedicated to the police station project, even if they did previously approve more money for an expansion.

“This council basically said, ‘We’ll spend between $60,000 and $80,000,’” Saxton said. “If that’s not a message that we’re behind this, I don’t know what is.”