Local Police Battle Through Tight Budgets, Limited Manpower

Pictured is Officer Michael Burgey with the Ellicott Police Department on the job. P-J photo by A.J. Rao

Small-town policing may not always grab the headlines. But with tightening funds, limited staffing and a steady stream of activity, local town and village departments are pulling off a task worth knowing.

According to John Bentley, chief of the Lakewood-Busti Police Department, a total of 10,315 incidents were answered in 2016, down from 11,506 the previous year. Over 8,000 of these calls were non-criminal complaints, while 635 involved a criminal arrest.

Domestic disputes and larcenies were the most frequent incidents, according to Bentley, a finding shared by other departments due to the economy and rampant drug activity in the area.

Bentley added that much of his department’s work involves traffic enforcement, describing the LBPD as more a “patrol force.” In 2016, the department responded to 374 vehicle accidents, 50 of which involved an injury and 324 with some form of property damage. About 1,500 traffic arrests were made, including 54 for drivers under the influence of either alcohol or drugs.

Bentley said these numbers do not reflect any significant trend from previous years, but noted staffing and budget constraints may pose issues in the future.

“The biggest problem is always the budget and knowing where we’re going to be money-wise,” he said. “I’m always looking for grants to try and bolster what we do, but grants have dried up over the past 10 years substantially.”

The annual budget for the LBPD is about $1.4 million, which, while relatively the same as in previous years, is facing a tighter crunch as part-time manpower runs short.

In an earlier interview with The Post-Journal, Bentley said he loses two part-time officers a year to departments like Jamestown or Dunkirk, both of which are exclusively full-time.

As a result, new part-timers join the LBPD every year, requiring thousands of dollars in field training, equipment and familiarization with the area – all at the department’s expense.

“I can’t expect a part-time policeman to stay here – that would be an unreasonable expectation,” Bentley said. “But it’s become a very difficult task with this revolving door. I’ll go for a year or two sometimes and not lose anybody, and then I’ll have a year where I lose six or seven officers and have to rehire and that’s expensive.”

Bentley said the cost of a part-time officer is a minimum of $25,000 a year, which includes salary, field training and equipment. The average cost of a full-time officer is approximately $82,000 a year, plus retirement and benefits.

“I have three open spots that I can’t fill right now because of budget issues,” Bentley said. “It would be nice to have them filled because my scheduling would become much easier. I tried to fill them with part-timers as much as I can to keep the costs down, but it comes to a point where I have to send full-time guys … and that becomes expensive, too.”

William L. Ohnmeiss Jr., chief of the Ellicott Police Department, said he’s facing similar issues with manpower.

“We always need more manpower and equipment … there’s never enough money,” he said. “I understand the taxpayer can only do so much, however, so we just try to do the best we can.”

Ohnmeiss said the annual budget for the EPD is about $1 million. The department currently has 12 full-time and eight part-time officers. While the latter can be effective “band-aids” to manpower shortages, Ohnmeiss said full-time officers are a better investment in the long run.

“Everytime you hire a new guy, there’s a whole new learning curve,” Ohnmeiss said. “Full-timers (allow for) a continuity in investigations and have a (greater) familiarity with businesses, the people and the history of the township. While they may seem a greater cost because of health care and retirement, they would (create) a more stable department and (bring) a definite cost-savings in the long run.”

Ohnmeiss praised his part-time officers, however, for playing a critical role in the department, particularly for taking on the same risks as full-time officers for less money and benefits.

“There’s never enough officers … but we’ve been able to make it work and I hope we’re doing the best we can for our community,” he said.