Jerome Township officials are working to ensure their residents do not bear the brunt of the cost to adequately staff the Union County Sheriff’s Office.
During Tuesday’s trustees meeting, Chair Megan Sloat proposed two options for the township’s public safety officer (PSO) contract with the Union County Sheriff’s Office.
Rather than a five-year contract, as has been done in the past, she suggested committing to either a one-year or three-year agreement.
Sloat said the PSO agreement was discussed at a recent meeting with Jerome Township Director of Departments Douglas Stewart, along with representatives from Millcreek Township, UCSO and the township’s legal counsel.
Jerome Township currently covers 80% of the cost of four PSOs shared with Millcreek Township. Trustees voted unanimously in January to add a fifth PSO, for which the township would likely cover the full cost.
She said the goal of a shortened contract would be to “really provide incentive to have some forward movement with doing a staffing study” and add more regular deputies to the Sheriff’s Office.
While Sloat said she feels that the dedicated deputies in Jerome and Millcreek townships are beneficial, she said she wants “to look at the big picture county-wide.”
She added that only two other townships in the state still utilize the PSO program and both have only one public safety officer.
“We can’t just keep adding (public safety) officers,” she said. “It’s just not sustainable.”
Stewart noted that the Union County Sheriff’s Office is “just now” reaching the staffing levels it had prior to “major layoffs” forced by the economic recession in 2008-09. He said he wants the Sheriff’s Office to have the deputies it needs to adequately serve the entire county.
“Everybody could benefit from this,” he said.
Sloat said a one-year contract would push UCSO to conduct a staffing study that indicates how many deputies are needed countywide and how much Jerome Township should be funding.
“This needs to get figured out now,” she said.
Alternatively, Sloat proposed a three-year contract with several conditions, including forming a staffing study committee by April 1, 2022 (which must include an independent consultant) and completing the study by 2023. She noted that the township would financially contribute to the study, though the amount is not yet determined.
Additionally, if Jerome Township’s police protection levy fails – unofficial results from the Nov. 2 were too close to call – a fifth PSO would not be added to the township unless the staffing study proved it to be necessary.
Trustee Joe Craft, who stated that the “extra officers are very important to me” as a business owner and resident, asked Sloat if she is in favor of the PSO program.
Sloat emphasized that she is “completely in favor” of the program and has conveyed that opinion in meetings with the Sheriff’s Office and Union County Commissioners.
Still, she said she does not want Jerome Township residents to “be paying disproportionately” for law enforcement officers compared to other county residents.
Trustee C.J. Lovejoy agreed with Sloat. He said the PSO program is not a long-term solution to wider staffing issues.
Rather than township-by-township funding, Lovejoy said the cost should be spread more evenly across the county. He proposed a countywide levy to increase the number of deputies with UCSO.
“Think of the resources it could generate,” he said.
Craft offered a different opinion.
He said he feels Jerome Township is “in a unique position” based on its comparatively larger population and increasing number of commercial businesses.
Discussion among the board became heated, as Sloat and Craft appeared to take different stances on the issue.
Craft said he is concerned that the current PSO contract expires at the end of the year and a new agreement is not yet in place. He asked if there was any certainty that any officers would be in Jerome Township next year.
Sloat said there will certainly be PSOs in Jerome Township and the negotiation comes down to the duration of the contract.
“There was no indication that we’re not going to renew a contract of some length,” she said of discussions with UCSO.
Stewart noted that township officials, including himself and Sloat, have been actively meeting with the Union County Commissioners and UCSO officials regarding countywide law enforcement since January.
Craft, though, questioned how long a staffing study has actually been in discussion. He asked Sloat and Stewart if they were implying that the Sheriff’s Office is to blame for the length of negotiations.
Stewart disagreed, emphasizing that township officials knew discussions would take time.
“With all due respect, that’s why we started talking to them in January,” Stewart said.
Sloat said the desire is to find a solution to staffing issues in Union County that satisfies all involved parties.
She said a study is the first step to doing so, adding that USCO officials and Millcreek Township trustees are also “on board” with completing a study.
The shortened contract is simply a means to push the process forward, she said.
Lovejoy said he is also in favor of a three-year contract.
“Ideally, having more police officers on the street is going to be safer for everyone,” he said.
Sloat said she would like to meet with UCSO officials and the township’s legal counsel regarding the terms of a three-year contract before trustees vote on the issue.
She said she feels the measure will be before the trustees for a vote at their next meeting.
Though Craft still expressed reservations surrounding the timing of the new contract, he said he is also in favor of a three-year contract and agrees with the need for a staffing study.