Milton Town Council has withdrawn from a federal grant that has been paying for the town's 11th police officer.
Officials voted 4-3 at the Feb. 4 meeting, backing up a council vote during the fiscal year 2012 budget process that reduces the police force by two officers through attrition. Council also agreed to set a meeting later this month to meet with a member from the International Association of Chiefs of Police regarding a comprehensive study of the police department.
Mayor Cliff Newlands said the prudent action was to table any vote on the Community Oriented Policing Services grant until after the town meets with the IACP official and a study is completed, but a majority was adamant council had already acted on the issue.
“Less officers will affect response time,” said Newlands. “When we go to nine officers, there will be times when our shifts will have to be covered by the Delaware State Police, who are not always in town.”
He said it will also affect ambulance service because EMS personnel sometimes cannot enter a scene until police have cleared it.
“Delays in response time will affect the health and welfare of our citizens,” he said.
The Milton Police Department is now working with 10 officers. In times when the town operates without an 11th officer, no money from the federal government is received. The program is designed to provide an extra officer to departments that have high enough crime but not enough money to pay for additional staff. It pays for an officer's salary; overtime; vacation, sick and holiday pay; medicare and health insurance over the course of three years with the stipulation that the town must retain that officer on its own expense for a year after the grant ends.
The town entered into the COPS grant program in the fall of 2010. It will not be penalized for pulling out of the program early, but Town Solicitor Seth Thompson said the town may be ineligible to receiver COPS funds for the next 1 to 3 years, as stated in the program's guidelines.
Because the town is understaffed and not receiving grant money, Newlands said the study should have been completed before council voted to withdraw from the program.
Councilwoman Marion Jones disagreed, saying the two issues were unrelated.
“We have been babysitting this for over a year and a half, and had we done our homework and due diligence this topic probably would've been put to bed long before we looked at the IACP for a police department assessment,” she said.
Council members John Booros, Kristin Patterson, Emory West and Jones voted to withdraw from the program, while Newlands, Councilman Norman Lester and Vice Mayor Leah Betts were against.
Booros said the grant does not fully cover all expenses for the 11th officer because the department must still pay for vehicle-related expenses as well as weapons, ammunition and training. He said getting out of the program now will save the town money in the long run.
“If the 10th officer leaves too – and that's the second officer through attrition – then this town saves an awful lot of money,” he said. “You don't go to Walmart and spend $100 just because they're going to give you $5 for free. If you don't need to spend the $100, then you don't spend the $100.”
Chief William Phillips said cutting off the funding for an 11th officer before hearing the results from the IACP is putting the cart before the horse.
“My biggest concern is let's say they do this survey, and they say we need 10 guys and we've already cut it down then we [won't] be able to apply for another federal grant for years to come,” he said. “We applied for that grant and the FBI … looked at our stats and knew our crime was bad enough that we needed an 11th officer.”
In an email to the Milton Neighborhood Watch, Phillips said four of his officers have informed him that they are searching for jobs in other departments, and his staff may be limited even further in the near future.
Jones said she is confident the town's police force can continue to work effectively with a smaller staff.
“I still want 24/7 coverage, and I still believe we can have 24/7 coverage, but I believe we need to do a better job with scheduling and managing the manpower we have, and I believe you can still do it with less,” she said.
Phillips said the town's crime has not decreased since the town added an additional officer through the COPS grant, and he said he won't be to blame if crime increases as a result of fewer officers on the street.
“What's going to happen is your constituents out there are the ones whose houses are going to be broken into and they're going to come to me and ask why can't I solve this, why did this happen and I'm not going to have a good answer for them,” he said. “I hope [council does]. I will not. I'm just telling you that if you don't listen to the FBI and you don't listen to the survey people, then it's on you. It's not on me.”