By Gene Meyer | Kansas Reporter
FAIRWAY – In a move to relieve pressure on the city budget, the Nickerson City Council voted 4-3 Monday evening to close the town’s police department.
Voters in Nickerson, a central Kansas farming community, will get the chance during city elections in April to ratify or reject that decision. Reopening the department, with two full-time and seven part-time officers — as recommended by a former police chief — “will add three or four mills to our property taxes,” predicts Mayor Jim Gladden.
The move has the potential to add $30 to $40 annually to the $1,200 to $1,500 property tax bills paid by many Nickerson home owners.
Gladden favors closing the department permanently, which would make the Reno County Sheriff’s office responsible for law enforcement in the town of 1,075.
But the ultimate decision “will be whatever the people want,” Gladden said.
Nickerson could save about $118,000 a year in police department pay, health and retirement benefits and other costs if the closure becomes permanent, City Clerk Robin Schmitt said.
Nearly a third of the total city budget, in other words. But the move could save even more.
Gladden and the council are postponing decisions about what to do with the town’s two patrol cars and other police equipment until after the six-month reevaluation.
“We (Kansas county sheriffs) have been asked from time to time to take over one-man departments because small towns who have them can’t offer competitive packages for qualified officers,” Horton said. “But in my entire career, I don’t recall a situation quite like this one.”
Kansas in 2008 had eight fewer police departments with 10 or fewer officers as compared to 2004, according to the most recent numbers collected by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Those are among 205 small departments throughout the U.S. that were closed during the same four years.
But from another viewpoint, Nickerson’s action appears to be an extreme example of budget pressure facing many of the nation’s 18,000 local police departments, said John Firman, research director at the International Association of Police Chiefs in Alexandria, Va.
“Departments everywhere are looking for all kinds of ways to be cost-effective and still provide for the safety of citizens and of officers,” Firman said.
Some partially consolidate, by pooling SWAT teams or major case squads, he said. Others absorb smaller departments to reduce overhead and assign members to their hometowns. But the most typical approach, as in Kansas, “is to simply go to the sheriff,” Firman said.
Reno County Sheriff Randy Henderson said it’s too soon to tell how taking over responsibility for law enforcement in Nickerson would affect his department’s costs.
Henderson and his four county deputies already answer about half the police calls from Nickerson because an officer for the city’s part time-force isn’t always on duty.
“Those are maybe four or five calls a day,” Henderson said. “We may get another two or three more now that their department is closed.”
Geography also will affect any added costs, Henderson said.
“Nickerson is in the far northwest corner of our county, which is the third largest in Kansas, at 1,250 square miles,” he said. “To get across our county takes 40 minutes.”
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