There is much at stake for small municipal police forces in Franklin County who are handcuffed by tight budgets and the officers being lured to large departments.
That’s why chiefs in New Haven, Gerald and Berger support Prop P which proposes a new sales tax to assist in the funding of municipal police departments.
According to New Haven Police Chief Dan Terry, in the past year, former chief John Sheible retired, a sergeant quit police work all together because of pay and an officer left the department for higher wages.
“I took a 30-year experience hit in about six months,” he said.
Including Terry there are spots for seven full-time members of the force and two reserve officers. Six of the full-time positions are filled.
However, two officers have applied for positions at departments in the St. Louis County area, he added.
“We have been taking applications since about mid-December,” Terry said. “We’ve got two — one is only part time and one full time.”
Prop P will appear on the April 3 ballot, asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax for law enforcement. One-half of the collected tax, or one-quarter cent, would go toward constructing a new Franklin County Jail and communication facilities. The other half would go for salaries in the sheriff’s department and municipal police departments in the county.
Terry added that finding qualified candidates became much more difficult following the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
“Five years ago, just before Ferguson we had people calling and asking to work for free,” Terry said. “There were so many officers coming out of the academy that nobody would touch without experience.”
Terry noted that the Prop P funding would help boost the salaries of officers in his department, and be making the force more attractive when recruiting officers.
“At this stage in the game we only have two officers who are not working secondary jobs on the weekend,” he said. “(Prop P) would help us immensely.”
Gerald Police Chief James Helton said his department has struggled fully staffing the force and retaining officers.
“This department has always been a proving ground, or steppingstone, for better pay,” Helton said. “The additional funding would help in retention of officers.”
There are currently four full-time Gerald officers, including Helton. There also are three reserve officers. A fully manned force is six full-time officers, Helton said.
He explained that newly hired officers earn $11.25 an hour during their probationary period. Officers can earn several dollars more an hour in Washington or for the sheriff’s office.
“That’s a life-changing amount of money for a guy — we would never be able to compete with Washington or the county,” Helton commented. “But if we compete with departments to the west we may be a little better off.”
He further commented that the Gerald department would be in a better position with wages comparable to departments in Gasconade County.
“We want to look forward to the future,” Helton said. “This is one way to do it. I hope Prop P passes so we can pay good quality officers a wage they can live with, and enhance our training fund.
“It would be a great benefit to our community.”
Harold Englert, Berger mayor, said the city has one officer who is soon to retire. Talks with candidates for his replacement have begun.
“It would be great if we can pay him a little more,” he said.
Englert stated the distribution of tax revenue collected through the tax is the most fair when based on officer per department.
“We don’t have a sales tax base in town, nor have any way of getting it,” he said. “The way it is set, per officer, is the fairest way.”
The comment is in response to a letter sent to Franklin County officials by the city of Washington stating, “If the county continues to pursue this distribution based on the number of (police) officers, the city will consider passing a resolution of nonsupport of the tax.”
It went on to read that Washington would be contributing more sales tax money to Proposition P than it would be receiving back.
“You have to realize a lot of people from Hermann, Berger and every other nearby city go into Washington to shop,” Englert said. “That isn’t just from citizens from Washington and it would help all of these smaller towns.”
Terry said a jail expansion also would have a major impact on New Haven.
A proposed $30.8 million expansion of the existing Franklin County Jail/911 facilities will incorporate 47,000 square feet of new construction with extensive renovations and strengthening of the existing structure.
The existing jail design is for 107 inmates and is currently reaching populations of 184. The average length of stay has increased 34 percent in the last 10 years.
“They have no room for us on municipal warrants,” Terry said. “People come to court and we have to send them home — our little bad check writers, in the scheme of things, aren’t that big of a deal.”
When residents know that a suspect won’t be put in jail, they may be reluctant to report a crime, he added.
“There are some in town who say, ‘When you arrest someone they are out on the street before the ink is dry, so what is the point of calling?’ ” Terry stated.
Helton said he has heard the process from arresting suspects to when they are let out of jail as “catch and release.”
“We don’t hold a lot of people, especially long term, but there are times we need to,” he said.
He said housing 184 prisoners in the jail is “ridiculous.
“They have to expand that jail,” Helton added. “It’s going to continue to go up.”