Benld Mayor Jim Kelly assured residents Monday night that a proposal to dissolve the Benld Police Department and contract with the City of Gillespie for local police protection is “not a done deal” and will not happen immediately even if the Benld City Council moves forward with the measure. Upward of 80 people attended the special meeting during which Benld and Gillespie city officials fielded specific questions from residents, most of whom appeared to oppose the idea.
“I think things went as well as I could expect,” Kelly told the BenGil Post after the hour-long meeting. “It was a hotbed issue but everyone held their cool. Everyone has their own ideas about what we should do and we want to hear them all. At the end of the day, I want police protection for Benld.”
Kelly encouraged residents to put their alternative ideas and suggestions in writing and give them to their alderman for the council to consider. Though declining to appoint a citizens committee, he also suggested that interested residents could form a committee on their own to seek alternatives to disbanding the local police department..
“If you have suggestions, write them down and get them to your alderman and we will look at them,” Kelly told the crowd. “We’re not locked into anything.”
If and when the council votes to disband the Benld Police Department and contract with Gillespie, Kelly said it would take time for city officials to negotiate terms of the contract and for city attorneys from the respective municipalities to draft a contract document.
“Nothing has been done,” Kelly said. “Whatever we do, it’s going to be thought out. I can guarantee you that nothing will be done in the next few weeks. If we go with Gillespie, there will be things that will have to be decided. There will be meetings. There will have to be negotiations. Things will have to be drawn up legally to see that everyone’s interests are protected. I can tell you this—we can’t continue to spend what we are spending. Our costs are going up and our are revenues aren’t going up to keep up.”
Everyone has their own ideas about what we should do and we want to hear them all. At the end of the day, I want police protection for Benld. – Mayor Jim Kelly
Kelly announced the proposal at the last regular meeting of the city council. The tentative proposal calls for Gillespie to provide police protection for the City of Benld at a cost of $215,000 a year. There would be one officer to patrol Gillespie 24/7, and one officer to patrol Benld 24/7, along with Sawyerville and Mount Clare, both of which currently are served under contract with Benld. A third officer would be on patrol between the two communities and to respond to either community as needed. While terms have not been negotiated, Kelly said the tentative agreement calls for a five-year contract term.
The issue, he said, boils down to dollars and cents. Last year, the city spent $277,952 to maintain the Benld Police Department. Contracting with Gillespie ostensibly would save the City of Benld nearly $63,000 in police protection costs. Benld provides police patrols to Sawyerville for $800 per month and to Mount Clare for $1,250 per month, resulting in $24,600 in revenue that will be lost if the Benld Police Department is disbanded. Kelly said the city currently supplements the police budget with General Fund dollars—money that could be used for other purposes, such as infrastructure improvements and maintenance if the city can reduce its costs for police coverage.
Kelly pointed out that one factor contributing to Benld’s declining revenues is a dearth of retail businesses within the city limits that would otherwise generate sales tax revenue. Because of the location of the city limits, he said a grocery store, two restaurants and a discount department store are located in Mount Clare.
Whatever is decided, Kelly said in response to a question, it will be a council decision, not a ballot initiative.
“I have no complaint with the Benld Police Department,” said Ken Snyder, a local business owner and five-year resident of Benld. “My complaint is public safety being taken completely out of the hands of the people of Benld.” He said for public bodies such as the County Board and School Board, local voters elect representatives. “We elect no one for the City of Gillespie,” he said as members of audience applauded. “No one is going to be accountable to the people of Benld.”
Snyder suggested forming an ad hoc citizens committee to discuss alternative options and ensure transparency as the city moves forward with addressing the issue. “I think we need to put the brakes on this thing and see if it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
“I’m fine with a committee,” Kelly said. “I do not want to lose the Benld Police Department but I do see that we’re going to have to do something. I’m not a smart man but I can read figures. This is not a done deal. It’s not even close to being a done deal. What we’re looking for is ideas. Whatever we do, it has to be within the money we have to spend.”
I can tell you this—we can’t continue to spend what we are spending. Our costs are going up and our are revenues aren’t going up to keep up. – Mayor Jim Kelly
Responding to a question from a resident, Ald. Peyton Bernot said there are no state or federal grants available to subsidize police department operational costs. The few grants that are available, he said, are earmarked for specific equipment purchases such as police squad cars.
Another resident suggested raising the price of police protection offered to Mount Clare since the bulk of sales tax generating businesses are located within the village limits.
“If we had those buildings over there in the City of Benld,” Kelly agreed, “we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Gillespie Mayor John Hicks noted that the City of Gillespie formerly provided police services for Mount Clare until the community went to Benld and negotiated a lower contract price. “You can’t get blood out of turnip,” he said. “If you raise it too high, they’ll say, ‘We’ll just go with the county.’ The problem with that is the county has two men to cover the entire county.” An emergency locally could require summoning a sheriff’s deputy from the opposite side of the county.
Gillespie Police Chief Jared DePoppe assured residents that police coverage would be the same as, and in some instances better than, the coverage currently provided. “Right now you have one officer for Benld, Mount Clare and Sawyerville,” he said. “What we’re proposing is no different than that.” Coverage could improve, he said, because a third car could be assigned to Benld during times when extra patrol is needed in the community. “In an emergency, all three cars might be in Benld,” he said. “That’s no different than what would happen now.”
Additionally, he said, Benld would benefit from a full-time ordinance officer assigned to Gillespie and Benld. Moreover, the recent addition of a detective’s position in Gillespie translates into greater availability of qualified officers for routine patrol duties by relieving them of investigative duties.
One resident worried about whether the loss of the Benld Police Department would result in high costs for home insurance policies.
City Attorney Rick Verticchio said most companies will look at whether or not a community has full-time police protection. If the city contracts with Gillespie, he said, the level of police protection would be unchanged and should have no impact on insurance costs.
Another resident questioned whether current Benld police officers would be given preference in hiring for the additional positions if the two cities contract with one another.
“I do the hiring for full-time police officers with the consent of the council,” DePoppe said. “In my entire career, I’ve never promised anyone a job. We would open it up to anyone who has police certification in the State of Illinois. We would then hire who we feel is the best individual. Their (Benld officers) experience would be considered. They would have a very good chance of being hired but there would be no guarantee. We would hire the best qualified person.”
In an emergency, all three cars might be in Benld, Gillespie Police Chief Jared DePoppe said. That’s no different than what would happen now.
Responding to another question, Gillespie City Treasurer Dan Fisher said the City of Gillespie currently budgets upward of $515,000 annually for police protection. In making the proposal to Benld, Fisher said Gillespie city officials determined what it would cost to expand the Gillespie Police Department to service Benld. The proposed $215,000 annual price tag, he said, is equal to the projected additional costs. “There is no profit in this for us,” he said.
Fisher discounted the notions of raising property taxes or collecting a surcharge to cover the cost of police protection in Benld. Because of tax caps, Fisher said, a referendum would be required to substantially raise property tax rates. Based on Benld’s current total equalized assessed valuation, he said a tax of $3.12 per $1,000 would be needed to cover the cost of police protection services.
“That’s about 55 percent of what you’re paying for schools,” he said. “The taxes you pay now are a fraction of what you’d have to pay” to support police services with property tax revenue.
Responding to a resident who suggested adding a fee to local water bills, similar to the way the city pays for city-wide trash pick-up, Verticchio said the surcharge would amount to $25 to $30 per household per month. Moreover, he said, there is no statutory authority to impose such a fee.
A lack of statutory authority also stands in the way of establishing a Police Protection District similar to the Community Unit Seven Fire Protection District established several years ago. Resident Bill Carter posed the idea of a district approach during his comments to the panel.
“I agree with you 100 percent,” Kelly said, “that a Police District would be the way to go. Right now the law in Illinois” doesn’t provide an option for establishing police districts.”
“There’s no law on the books,” Ald. Jim Tilashalski added, to authorize a police district. In the meantime, he said, the money the city devotes to police protection prevents the city from addressing other issues. “We hope that through this, we can go ahead and do other things for Benld.”
Police Chief Jim Zirkelbach told the crowd his department has done whatever is possible to control rising costs for police protection. Although the current union contract requires overtime to be offered first to full-time officers, local officers agreed to offer overtime hours to part-time officers. That measure, Zirkelbach said, saves the city about $6 per hour in overtime costs.
His comments sparked further discussion about how overtime expenses might impact the contract with Gillespie.
“The City of Gillespie would cover those costs,” DePoppe said. “You pay $215,000 and that would be your cost regardless of overtime. If you have a major incident here, Gillespie would cover the overtime.” Additionally, he said, Gillespie would cover the costs of engaging in collective bargaining negotiations and the cost of patrol cars and equipment.
Kelly said the police cars Benld currently owns would remain with the city and probably would be sold as surplus property. Likewise, the city would continue to maintain and realize revenue from a recently authorized impound lot to hold vehicles seized by police in Benld.
Kelly acknowledged the city has not reached out to other communities such as Mount Olive and Staunton.
Responding to a question, Kelly acknowledged the city has not reached out to other communities such as Mount Olive and Staunton, noting that the issue is under consideration only because Gillespie approached Benld with a proposal.
“One problem is logistics,” he said. “Mount Olive is five miles away through White City bottoms.” Likewise, Staunton is more distant from Benld than Gillespie. “If that is your proposal, we will reach out to those communities,” he said.
Also responding to a question, Kelly acknowledged that the arrangement with Gillespie could be temporary, though that scenario seems unlikely. If the city decides to contract with Gillespie, that contact could be ended if the city decides later to reinstitute the Benld Police Department or if legislation passes to facilitate the creation of a Police District.
“There’s always that possibility,” Kelly said.
Kelly recognized Greg Simac, union representative for Laborers Local 333, the union representing Benld police officers. “The union has pledged to us they will work with us,” Kelly said.
Kelly reiterated that no decision has been made at this point and that making the decision will take time.
“I don’t know how fast we’re going to move,” he said. “If we don’t do something, I think we’re going to be in real trouble by the end of next fiscal year. I know the longer we wait, the more these costs are going to go up. Write your ideas down and get them to us. This is real and it’s here.”