Saugatuck Officials Take Umbrage At Criticisms By Douglas Leaders & Police Over The City's Ongoing Review Of Police Services & Possible Alternatives
The ongoing Saugatuck city look into police service options continues to stir controversy.
The criticism of Douglas city officials by a Saugatuck official during Monday’s Saugatuck City Council meeting as it relates to the police issue was met with a quick response by the local police officer union president.
Meanwhile, Saugatuck Township’s special police committee, in light of the recent developments, will be meeting next Thursday, Jan. 18 at 1 p.m. to discuss Saugatuck’s ongoing project to consider various options to providing police services for its residents.
The township police committee will also be looking into options for possible police services for its area.
The fact that the Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department (SDPD) responds to about 19 percent of emergency calls—many in the township jurisdiction—without any compensation by the township has become a point of friction between the township and the cities.
The township does not contribute to any operating costs for the SDPD; it gets limited coverage from the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department.
One idea being bandied about in the township is the formation of some kind of Tri-Community police department, similar to one of Saugatuck’s options, the formation of a “regional department.”
Saugatuck Planning Commission Member Dan Fox spoke during the comments section of Monday’s Saugatuck council agenda, commending council and city staff on the work they’ve done throughout 2017 and continue to do, including the study the city hired Evanston, Ill.-based consultant Alexander Weiss to conduct.
Saugatuck leaders are looking at possible alternatives to the current agreement with the City of Douglas for police service, and the study came up with several, perhaps contracting service with the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department, or renegotiating a different contract with Douglas, or forming a regional police department, among other options.
“This is good government at work, looking to ensure that constituents’ tax money is spent in a responsible, efficient manner. Very few businesses would accept, ‘this is how we’ve always done it,’ as an explanation for large, recurring expense items. In fact, many businesses enforce a periodic critical review of every supplier agreement,”
Fox said in his prepared statement before Saugatuck City Council.
He continued, in part, “What’s a little disheartening is the complete failure by Douglas city officials through the years to study their police operation for possible efficiency gains.
“No professional efficiency gains. No professional studies. No surveys in the community. No transparency. Instead, Douglas now sends groups of police officers to lobby on its behalf at Saugatuck City Council meetings. One even spoke to a television news camera outside Saugatuck City Hall.”
Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department Officer Jon Bender, who is also president of the local police union chapter, responded to Fox’s comments, conceding he and colleagues have been critical of Saugatuck’s move.
“Yes, we are looking to keep our jobs because we love our jobs. We love the people of Saugatuck and we are here to protect and serve the citizens of Saugatuck. Honestly, I think the current agreement is the best way to do that,” said Bender.
He said that although he strongly disagreed with Saugatuck city officials over the police matter, he noted, “One thing my father always said, ‘The best thing about America is that you have the right to be wrong.’”
Saugatuck’s project has also triggered harsh criticism from Douglas officials.
They feel the current eight-officer department with the 24/7 coverage is the best agreement it can offer Saugatuck and does not need to change.
Formed in 1998, the Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department (SDPD) is operated by Douglas with a $1.28 million budget. The current fiscal year is the second year it has topped $1 million. Saugatuck pays $550,000 toward the total budget, including money for extra officers for Oval Beach and downtown Saugatuck during the summer.
Douglas officials argue that any reduction to the police budget—if Saugatuck is looking for a cheaper alternative—would necessarily increase the costs to Douglas residents because they would be subsidizing Saugatuck every time Douglas police department officers are called into Saugatuck for emergency and other pressing matters.
Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier says his city council members are doing exactly what the taxpaying residents want: to be fiscally responsible and look for ways to trim costs while providing the services needed for the community.
“That’s what good government does,” says Harrier.
He also noted that negative criticism aimed at Saugatuck officials by Douglas city leaders and police officers simply because they are doing their due dilligence by looking at various possible alternatives to the current police contract is unnecessary and counter-productive.
“We will do what’s in the best interest of our residents,” said Harrier. “You would think that they (Douglas officials and police officers) would understand that.
“With that being said, we (Saugatuck city officials) have not come to any final decision as of yet. We are still gathering our facts.”