An advertisement seeking police officers in Milton has sparked outrage from residents and members of town council, who believe a 2011 vote prevents town officials from hiring of additional officers.
Police Chief William Phillips placed an ad in the Nov. 2 edition of the Cape Gazette, a few weeks after an officer left the department. At the Nov. 5 town council meeting, citizens lined up to voice their disapproval.
Mayor Cliff Newlands said it is just an advertisement and doesn't mean the department is hiring any new officers. He said the town still has an obligation to the Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Program grant from the Department of Justice that pays the salary of one Milton officer for three years. A stipulation of the grant is the department must retain the officer for a fourth year on its own dime.
Mary Hudson, who was on council when the police department was capped, said the 5-2 vote was an “overwhelming majority.”
“Five council members voted to cap the police force at nine officers through attrition because we believed the town was spending too much for too many officers,” she said.
She said the town could save about $150,000 because the grant does not cover additional expenses like police cars, car insurance, benefits and overtime and guns and ammunition.
She hoped the money saved could've been used to repair storm drainage and deteriorating sidewalks, to buy additional lighting for the town's dark areas and fund a main street project to beautify the town.
The Community Policing Development Program Award Owner's Manual states a financial clearance memorandum specifies the costs a specific agency is allowed to fund. It also describes costs disallowed after review of the proposed budget.
The CHP grant was created in 1994 and provides municipalities with funding to hire new officers, rehire officers laid off due to budget restrictions or to rehire officers scheduled to be laid off.
Shortly after the council voted to cap the police force through attrition in 2011, Town Solicitor Seth Thompson sent a letter informing the federal government of the council's vote. Councilman John Booros said the letter never asked the government if the town could opt out of the grant.
“From what I've read online and the information I've got, all you have to do is tell them we want out of the grant,” he said. “We voted to lose two [officers] by attrition, period, and I don't think a COPS grant supersedes what this council and the council before us voted on.”
Thompson said it likely isn't as easy as that.
“The problem is with the way the COPS grant is written,” he said. “It says it is to supplement; it's not to supplant,” meaning it's intention is to provide the department with an additional officer it otherwise would not have.
He said the information provided on the grant's website is misleading when compared to the terms and conditions in the contract. According to the 2010 COPS Hiring Program Grant Terms and Conditions, an agency is committed to retaining all sworn officer positions awarded under the CHP grant for a minimum of 12 months following the conclusion of the 36 months of federal funding. It further states, “Your agency cannot satisfy the retention requirement by using CHP-funded positions to fill locally-funded vacancies resulting from attrition.”
Councilwoman Marion Jones said she was blindsided when she received calls and emails about the ad. She said the mayor should've kept council in the loop.
“It was very disturbing that as someone who's gone through the process of becoming an elected official to represent the public I could not answer the public,” she said. “I can only assume that it's because it was an unpopular topic.”
Some residents questioned the chief's ability to place an advertisement in the newspaper, saying personnel issues are the responsibility of Town Manager Win Abbott.
“This really creates a stench of collusion and illegality, and personally it raises questions of ethics,” said resident Gwendolyn Jones. “Mr. Mayor, I'm disappointed.”
Resident John Collier said the town's charter states it is the town manager's job to hire and fire employees.
“There is something going on here that just doesn't quite work well for me,” he said. “As a taxpayer I am concerned about how my tax dollars are spent. I elected [Newlands] to lead the council; I pay taxes for [Abbott] to manage the town. That's what I'd like to see happen.”