Keyser City Council talks about police department
By Liz Beavers
Tribune Managing Editor
KEYSER - Keyser mayor Damon Tillman confirmed during the last Keyser City Council meeting that city and county officials had at one time discussed dissolving the Keyser Police Department and turning law enforcement over to the county sheriff’s department.
Since the city police department’s budget is approximately $900,000, the city officials felt it would free up some money and help ease their ongoing budgetary woes.
The idea was dropped for a number of reasons, according to Mineral County commissioner Jerry Whisner, however, who told the News Tribune he had discussed it with former chief of police Tom Golden soon after Tillman took office and Golden was appointed as chief.
The subject came up during the Oct. 14 city council meeting, during a time when the mayor and council members held an open discussion with various audience members about some of the issues facing the city.
Chief among the issues was money, and Tillman said, as he has repeated many times, the city has to “think out of the box” in order to grow because annexation is pretty much a dead issue.
“The city operates on a $1.5 million budget, and the police department takes about $800,000 of that,” Tillman said.
“In September, the police department and dispatchers’ wages were $59,925,” council member Jim Hannas said. “That’s just one month.”
Later in the discussion, Hannas said the police department costs the city “$975,000 a year … what could this city do with $975,000 a year?” he asked.
According to Tillman, “County commissioner Jerry Whisner approached Tom Golden about the county taking over as a county-wide police department.
“He asked Tom Golden to get the mayor on board, and for the mayor to get the council on board.
“Tom talked to me … and it took me a couple weeks but I said, ‘Alright, let’s do it.’ And Tom went back to Jerry Whisner and said, ‘Ok, we’re on board, what do we have to do?’ And Jerry said, ‘No. We’re not gonna do it now.’
“It would have been a win-win situation,” Tillman said.
Whisner said, however, the idea was dropped mainly because there were a lot of details that needed to be worked out, and “we weren’t sure whether legally we could do it or not.”
In the meantime, Golden retired, and sheriff Jeremy Taylor, whose term ends at the end of this year, didn’t want to tackle it so close to leaving office.
Whisner said he would still be willing to talk about it, and to also include Elk Garden and Piedmont in the county coverage area.
“We thought we could help the city as far as their budgetary woes,” he said. “But there were some little issues we weren’t sure we could get past.”
Whisner noted, however, that the agreement wouldn’t come at no cost to the city. “To do so, we’d have to take some of the city budget,” he said.
With the city’s police ranks getting smaller, Hannas expressed his opinion that the county will eventually have to step in anyway.
“The county is going to have to start helping with law enforcement,” he said. “If the City of Keyser says they cannot afford the police department any longer, the sheriff, the county and the state would have to (step in). They’d have to!” he said.
If a county police force is no longer on the table, however, city resident Ralph Broadwater feels there is an alternative.
“For ten years I have been fighting to get rid of city dispatch,” he said. “You’ve got a $2 million 911 system sitting right up there on Pine Swamp Road that could handle this whole damn county, but yet feet get drug, and people say we can’t do without. They say they don’t have no faith in them, but yet the county seems to run alright with them.”
“I think it’s good to have a police department … but it would be perfect if they could do the dispatching and us keep a few police officers,” council member Jennifer Junkins said.
“We spoke with Luke McKenzie (911 director) and the county commissioners about this awhile back,” Tillman said. “The county commission said ‘Yeah, we’ll do it. But we’re gonna charge you.” It was $150,000 over five years,” he said.
“The citizens pay 911 tax for that 911 center, so they’re already being charged for that service,” he added.
“And even if we gave them our dispatch, we’d have to keep one or two for the other duties they have,” Tillman said.
“How many of you know, when you call 911 to report something, and they find out you’re in the city limits, they say ‘Hold on, I’ll direct your call to the city.’?” Broadwater asked.
“When that guy picks up,” he continued, “you’ve gotta tell him everything again.”
“And in the meantime, you’ve got a kid with a blue face,” Junkins said.
Tillman took the time during the discussion, however, to come to the defense of current chief Paul Sabin and the police department.
“We have a damn good police department. I’m not going to say anything bad about them,” he said. “I love those guys. I would stand in a fox hole with those guys. I would stand side-by-side with them,” he said.
“I will stand right beside Paul Sabin in a heartbeat.”
Resident Cathy Bridges urged the mayor and council members to call a town hall meeting so other residents could express their opinions about the police department and other issues.
“You are exactly right,” Tillman said. “We need to call a town hall meeting …and we’ll cover everything. I don’t care if it takes eight or ten hours.”
No date has yet been set for the meeting. The next regular meeting is Oct. 28.