BELLE — In a 75-minute meeting on Sept. 23, Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman agreed to release the city of Belle from its police contract by Dec. 31 — 60 days — pending the Belle …
BELLE — In a 75-minute meeting on Sept. 23, Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman agreed to release the city of Belle from its police contract by Dec. 31 — 60 days — pending the Belle Police Department’s ability to safely provide services for the town.
Belle Mayor Daryl White, Jr. and Heitman met on Friday morning to discuss the city’s release from a police services contract that aldermen unexpectedly voted to terminate during a Sept. 21 budget workshop. A small confrontation ensued outside of City Hall at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 23 before the meeting with White, Heitman, Deputy Major Scott John, Police Chief Joe Turnbough, and Aldermen Kayla Bray and Adam Padgett. Heitman describes the initial meeting as “hostile and heated with voices raised on both sides.”
Heitman said he was disappointed the city had not shared the news with him earlier than Friday morning.
“I was disappointed the city of Belle voted to drop our police coverage contract as soon as possible at their budget review meeting Wednesday night and that I had to find out about it from the Maries County Advocate,” he said.
He was officially notified around 10 a.m. on Friday that Belle officials planned to present him with a written notice to terminate the agreement. White asked if Heitman would release the city from its contract immediately. The written notice requested release “as soon as possible.”
Heitman said his office purchased equipment the previous week for the Belle Division based on the mayor’s word that they would be contracting police services for another year or two.
“I feel very misled as my office was informed by the mayor just last month that we were doing a good job and it was nothing against us, that he just wanted his police department back, and that he anticipated dropping the contract in about two years,” Heitman said.”
White had intended to simply present the written notice to the sheriff in his office at City Hall but asked everyone present to the Lonnie Feeler Memorial Building instead when it became clear that discussion was warranted.
John began the discussion by informing White and the two aldermen present that the previous mayor had an exit strategy in place with the sheriff’s department. White was appointed to the board in June, Bray in July, and Padgett in August. None of the new board members were knowledgeable about the previous administration’s police contract exit strategy.
“There is nothing to nail down their plans and that is something we have been researching,” White said. “I don’t know if that just disappeared with Josh (Seaver’s) administration —.”
John said he still has his copy of the five-year plan and can share it with the city.
“From what I understand, there was an agreement between the sheriff’s department, what they will provide and what we will provide for the building, propane and stuff like that,” White said.
Heitman said the city doesn’t provide much besides the substation.
“We provide the phones in there, we provide the internet, that’s our copier in there, our phones, our computers in there, all of our server equipment,” Heitman listed.
John added that the wall of equipment was all of their servers.
“The only thing you provided was the building for us to utilize and that was it,” Heitman said.
He provided a list of the equipment that the sheriff’s department keeps at the substation in Belle.
“Copiers, phones, computers and breathalyzers to be used in Belle,” Heitman said. “While I understand we only have a one-year renewable contract, we have made these financial decisions of infrastructure and equipment based on verbal guidance from city leadership.”
White said he understands they are paying for the utilities and internet at the substation.
“I think we are providing more than just the building with the utilities and stuff,” White said.
Heitman said the city’s road crew also utilizes the building and their dog catcher had an office there for a while. The contract described the agreement between the city and the sheriff’s department in terms of officers, a number o service hours and cost. The rest of the agreement was verbal.
White logged a complaint against one of the deputies to Heitman before he began to address the situation.
“I never once said the police department has done a bad job in Belle,” he said. “You guys come in and saved a sinking ship. We understand the service you provided was above and beyond. You did not have to do that.”
White asked the sheriff to look at it from the city’s perspective.
“You saved us, you saved the town. It was before my time,” White said. “You were compensated. I know you went above and beyond but you didn’t do it for free. We are not saying you didn’t do a good job, we are saying as a community with our own police department we can provide more than you guys can provide.”
White said he has spoken with John and there is a different mentality between a county deputy and a city deputy and between elected positions.
“What we want to do is start over, we want to bring our police department back,” White said. “We can’t give our town away. Every department in our town is vital. If we can bring our department back in unison with you guys, we are still part of Maries County.”
White said their department would back Maries County and Heitman said he agrees but he wishes he had known the city was planning to terminate the contract this soon.
“I expected we would be with you guys at least another year,” Heitman said.
White said it wasn’t a secret, he has been quoted several times in the newspaper that they would be bringing this back.
“We’re not disagreeing with you,” John said. “I told you when I met with you last month that I have every intention of running for sheriff and that was going to be my promise in my first term was to help you get this done. But I sat in your office and told you when you hired Joe (Turnbough) back we kinda get the impression you are firing your PD back immediately. What’s your plan? I’ve got three holes in the sheriff’s office, I don’t want to hire guys and then you cancel it in February and now I’ve got to fire guys.”
John said he needed to know the decisions immediately because he helps with the sheriff’s budget that runs January-December.
“When we made that decision the other night, that’s why I sent you guys a message yesterday,” White said. “We didn’t get out of our meeting until 10 o’clock Wednesday night and that’s why I sent you a message yesterday. And if you would have stayed at the meeting the other night —.”
John said White answered his question a month ago and said he was going to stay with the PD contract and make a recommendation in March whether to continue it or not and go from there.
“You said it was going to be at least two years before you guys were 100 percent on your own,” John said.
“I absolutely said that,” White agreed. “Then when I came to the council we decided we could expedite this.”
“We are paying around $176,00-$177,000 right now,” White said.
The city currently pays $177,116 to Maries County for police services. Heitman expected the contract to stay under $200,000 when it went up in February.
“So in February when this contract comes, the world what it is, your cost of living raise, benefits and everything has gone up and it’s going to be around $200,000. You break that down and it costs us $4,000 a week and we can’t continue paying $4,000 a week and bring our police department back. We can’t absorb it.”
“These next two years are going to be awful rocky,” White said. “We are going to have to operate on bare bones necessities. We would like to have $300 uniforms to wear but it may come down to renting something. We have to really be conscious, you know.”
John also estimated the cost to fully clothe a police officer, including boots and a utility belt, is about $500, without including any weapons or armor.
Heitman said the city has to have things before they fully bring back the police department.
“You have to have dispatch, a report writing system that works, equipment, you need training, they need ammo,” Heitman began.
John added that the city’s Crime Star program hasn’t been updated in three years. You need to get your updates done.”
White asked if they were available to dispatch as he had previously requested.
“We would do it for $10,000,” Heitman said. “But you could get it from Osage County for $4,000, which I’ll be honest, I would recommend the council going with Osage because that is cheap.”
John said they could still make that work because they can sign MOUs together and allow each other to use each entity’s frequency.
“I will listen to yours and talk on yours and you talk on ours,” John said.
Heitman added that there will be a delay as Maries County contacts Osage County dispatchers, but the amount that Osage County wants to charge for dispatching services is very cheap.
“We are looking for the best we can do for our city,” White said. “But to me, we are going to stay with the $4,000, but I have no problem spending $8,000 over $4,000 if I can provide my citizens with the best possible.”
White said even after they drop the contract he would still like to see sheriff’s deputies in Belle every day. John said they will see a deputy but not one dedicated to the town. It would be a roaming deputy passing through.
“We didn’t start digging at this,” White said. “We’ve had a lot of complaints that people have called in that there hasn’t been a deputy,” White said.
Heitman said the previous board called either him or John on every complaint and they addressed it immediately.
“We have not had one complaint from this council,” Heitman said.
White said they have had a lot to deal with since he stepped into the mayor position.
“We’ve had major financial, major budget issues, major employment issues,” White began.
Heitman said he can’t fix issues if the city doesn’t tell him about them. John said that the general public doesn’t understand what goes on behind the scenes, but if the sheriff’s department is informed about situations they address them. White said that lately there have been more conflicts.
The Maries received around 11,000 CAD calls this year countywide, of which 8,000 have been from the city of Belle.
“This side of the table is a whole lot different information than that side of the table,” White said, adding that no one really knows all of the happenings at the city level.
John said they don’t know what is going down on the sheriff’s side of the table either. He asked how many people live within Belle city limits and White guestimated 1,150 people.
“If two people call at the same time, one person will get a deputy and the other will have to wait,” John said.
John used the early morning car accident on Highway C that involved serious injuries as an example of why mutual aid agreements are important.
“This morning we had a major car wreck out on C Highway, the Belle deputy responded to that along with our county deputies and Highway Patrol,” John said. “The Belle deputy was the first car on scene and pulled her from a burning vehicle and if he hadn’t responded to that she would have been burned alive. But if somebody would have called this morning for a Belle deputy to come over and take care of a complaint, they would have been told the deputy was unavailable and they would have complained to you guys that a deputy was unavailable.”
White said he has been in contact with Madi Long’s family, the girl in the crash, and wanted to let them know that their deputy saved that girl.
“I want your deputy to know that we are very thankful for that this morning,” White said. “Before we get off topic I would like to convey that to your deputy. He needs a medal or something.”
Turnbough was also present at the meeting.
“I would have been here but when we went to that funeral,” Turnbough began. “That deputy pulled up, because we were working on a stolen vehicle which they found, got into a pursuit, so he passed me and said ‘I am going down to address that.’ The school wanted me to do a drug awareness so I went in and done that with the freshmen boys and girls, and as soon as he walked off, I guess that’s what happened, I was inside the school at that time.”
After passing along his thank you to the sheriff’s deputy, White passed out the written request for the police contract’s termination.
The letter was short and to the point, requesting to terminate the contract with Maries County as soon as possible and that the sheriff reach out to them to discuss the issue further for a smooth transition.
“We’ve brought you this letter,” White said. “We are trying to build our town back. We was under the understanding at our budget meeting the other night that we could be up and running and run our city correctly.”
Alderman Bray added, “We are already working on Crime Star and the only other thing is the dispatching and stuff.”
According to the sheriff, the letter from the mayor and board requested Maries County Sheriff’s Department terminate the police services contract effective immediately. However, the contract between the city and sheriff’s department specificities a 90-day notice.
Heitman said asking his office to pull out immediately had ramifications for his department and the city.
“A sudden, unplanned exit will be a financial hardship for my office as we have extended resources for the city of Belle,” Heitman said before the meeting, “Including extra patrol vehicles, car radios, portable radios, in-car cameras, radar units, ballistic vests, body cameras, duty weapons, rifles, less lethal weapons, evidence collection kits, first aid kits, police uniforms and a lot of miscellaneous expenses. I would estimate each patrol car in Belle is equipped with over $35,000 in equipment plus the cost of the vehicle at around $40,000. Not to mention the costs of the deputies, their salary, benefits, training, police liability insurance, vehicle insurance, fuel and vehicle maintenance.”
Heitman said the Belle police force wasn’t ready to protect the citizens on their own.
White asked if they have a compromise to offer the city.
“It’s wrong for me to even do it with the taxpayers like this. I want to help the city and I want you guys to succeed but Joe has to have the resources to succeed,” Heitman said. “If I dropped it right now, Joe could be going to a burglary where he doesn’t have the equipment — he doesn’t have fingerprint stuff, or evidence collecting kits. He can’t investigate a crime scene. It’s so irresponsible of the council to avoid (talking to me). If I said ‘I am done with the city of Belle, they screwed me, I am going to screw them’ — I would never do that — but if I had done that it would be a big disservice to the citizens because we don’t have the police officers to respond with the equipment that they need.”
Heitman said his proposal will hurt his office, but they will make due.
“Letting you out in 60 days gives you two months to get your dispatch lined up, to get your officers trained and working good and to give them the resources they need,” Heitman said.
The one-year contract was set to be renewed on Feb. 1.
He began listing the items the police department will need to get started.
The state requires the municipalities to provide equipment to each officer including duty weapons, ammo, bulletproof vests and flashlights to name a few.
“Just that (hand) radio alone is over $5,000,” Heitman said while pointing to the radio on John’s officer belt. “They have to have that. It is not something you can skimp on. Just two car radios alone are over $11,000. The city needs to know what they are going to spend.”
For one officer to have a radio and a car radio would be over $11,000 — that’s $22,000 in radios for two officers.
White said his personal opinion, not as the mayor, is that they fully knew it would take 90 days to get out of the contract.
“If Belle was to request the 90 days or put it ‘till the end of the year, would you dispatch for us until the end of the year?” White asked Heitman, who said absolutely.
“We could be up and running tomorrow with the Belle Police in unison with Maries County,” White said.
Heitman agreed that it would be great but begged them not to send Turnbough or anyone else without the equipment they need to be successful. White said they are working adamantly not to do that. John said they have to be careful when they purchase equipment,
“You can’t just go buying from whoever you want because then you are going to be getting off state bid contracts,” John said.
White said he spent all day Thursday searching for equipment. John offered the city a service car to purchase since the sheriff’s office has purchased two vehicles.
“Look at spendin’ $40,000-$50,000 upfront,” Heitman said. “I know it sucks, it’s not something you guys planned on, but they need that equipment.”
Bray said they were expecting that.
“That’s why we have to break this early so we save that,” Bray said. “So we can afford to pay for the rest.”
“I will say that we have more information now than we had Wednesday night,” White said. “We make our decisions off of the information we have at hand.”
Heitman said he could have been there to help with those decisions. John said he was there for the first 45 minutes of the meeting.
“I saw in the budget that you had allocated funds for the contract renewal, and at that point in time my questions were answered,” John said.
White said they were changing that budget in the meeting.
“That was the proposed budget,” White began. “That’s what our work meeting was, we went through and made the changes and reallocated that money.”
Heitman told White he needed to be more cautious.
“You are required to list stuff on an agenda that’s going to be discussed,” Heitman said. “And if you guys planned on discussing that it has to be listed.”
“Wouldn’t you say that’s part of the budget?” White asked.
Heitman said no.
“You can’t say deciding police contract services for your town is discussing the budget,” Heitman said.
Before the meeting, Heitman said he felt that the mayor and aldermen violated Sunshine Law and shared his opinion with those present.
“In my opinion, the mayor may have violated Sunshine Law with this issue as Chapter 610 requires the city to give notice on an agenda ‘in a manner reasonably calculated to advise the public of the matters to be considered and this was not listed on the agenda.”
Heitman said he believes the contract is a topic the board wanted to discuss before the Wednesday meeting began.
“If it was just brought up without prior thought, that would be shameful,” Heitman continued. “Plus, it seems if the mayor wasn’t trying to hide this, he would have reported it in a usual manner and it would have been recorded on Facebook Live like other meetings, posted on their webpage, or some other means of social media. My office and the citizens of Belle should not be notified of such a big decision by our local paper after the decision was already made.”
White said no, he would consider it a budget issue.
“I am telling you my personal opinion,” Heitman said to White. “When in doubt, put it on an agenda because I would have been there if I had known it was going to be discussed. Not to stop you from doing what you was going to do but to help you and guide you. Because you guys probably don’t know how much radios are.”
Heitman added that the city hasn’t paid for inmate housing while they have been under contract. He and John estimated the cost to be about $30-$50 a day per inmate to board prisoners depending on who the city contracts jail services.
John told White that he offered his expertise when they spoke last month to help the city successfully bring back the department because he knew there would be things they didn’t know or understand.
“We’ve voiced that from day one,” John said. “That’s why we offered our knowledge, our services and our expertise. We want to see you successfully establish your PD again.”
White said the previous administration liquidated almost all of what was left of the police department’s assets.
“I’ll be honest, a lot of the equipment was all old,” Heitman said.
White said old equipment is better than none, but Heitman added that the uniforms were ragged.
“We realize we have to operate on bare bones,” White reiterated.
Heitman told White that it will be hard for the city to operate on the $177,116 the city pays to Maries County Sheriff’s Department. White agreed but said the city can’t operate its own department and pay the sheriff’s department.
“I have no say on this council,” White said. “I am a spokesperson for the citizens. I have to talk to the citizens and say ‘it costs you $4,000 a week to have Maries County. Are you happy with that? I would say it’s a fifty-fifty split.’”
John said he doesn’t think the city understands the cost of bringing back the department, which he estimates to be between $230,000 and $250,000 annually.
“I would say your line item budget for the PD by the time you get done with insurance, all payroll benefits, fuel, vehicle maintenance, tires, uniforms that get torn, ammo, expenses, training, sending people to continuing education classes because they are required to have at least 24 hours a year — you’re going to be looking at between $230,000 and $250,000 a year,” John said.
White said he believes that.
“But in turn, I can’t allocate $200,000 and bring in $13,000,” White said. “My return this year was $13,000.”
White is referring to fine revenue that it shares with the sheriff’s department.
Heitman said that wasn’t all of his department’s fault and the city saw that when they observed the court proceedings.
“Absolutely,” White said. “You told me since day one before I was mayor and sat in that alderman seat, you come to us and said we had court problems. That’s what we are trying to fix. I really think that switching to Mr. (Tony) Skouby (as prosecutor) that we’re going to bring in more fines because there is more stuff that we can do.”
Heitman asked city officials present if they wanted to try to get out of the contract within 60 days if they can get Turnbough everything he needs to run the department.
“I would be comfortable with that and I am not uncomfortable with the 90 days,” Heitman said.
White said he doesn’t want to set the new department up to fail and he doesn’t want to kick Maries County police out of Belle.
“I do want to start the process of bringing back the police department,” White said.
Heitman asked if they wanted to keep the substation for deputies to stop in? Or ultimately it is going to be up to Turnbough. White said he had no problem with that. John asked how many deputies they were hiring.
“Right now we have Joe hired, we have one full-time deputy hired —,” White began.
John asked what their goal was and White said three deputies. Turnbough said four deputies.
“How can you function with three (officers)?” Heitman asked.
Turnbough said he wanted four deputies to revert to the plan he had before the department was closed down — for himself to be on days, a deputy at the school as a resource officer, and an evening officer.
White asked if Vienna pays the sheriff’s department for dispatching and Heitman said yes, but the Vienna Police Department handles all of its own calls. White asked where the biggest call-out area is and Heitman said Belle.
“So I’m just saying out of professionalism, if you wasn’t employed by Belle, by the contract, you would still in your mind know that we have to have somebody close to Belle,” White said.
Heitman agreed that they are always responding to Belle, but sometimes they only have one deputy on duty.
“If they are down in Dixon, they are going to be waiting an hour or two for us to get there,” Heitman said.
The sheriff’s department currently has two positions advertised. They contracted three or four deputies with the city.
“So they wouldn’t all lose their job if Belle pulled out?” White asked.
Heitman said one possibly could, maybe two.
“Either way, I’ll make it work but I wish we could have had more preparation,” Heitman said. “That’s the only thing I was upset about. I am not upset they are pulling out of their contract.”
White said the three board members present, including himself, haven’t been on the board for 60 days yet.
“We are as new and as green as anybody here,” White said.
Heitman said he didn’t want to take on providing police services to Belle from the start and John said they aren’t upset about the city preparing to take it back.
“It’s a financial decision we want to make sure you are ready for,” John said.
White asked what the cost to Belle would be if they ran the contract through Dec. 31 and included dispatching.
“You could be out two months early,” Heitman said. “I would prorate services so you wouldn’t be charged for the inmate stuff and dispatching. I want to help you guys too.”
John advised that any gear they will be ordering needs to be done immediately.
“You will help us with that list?” Padgett asked.
John said yes. Heitman advised also to have an in-car camera and body cameras, but not go to the high-dollar ones. The ones on Amazon work fine.
“This is not a decision I can make,” White said. “I have to take this to the council.”
Heitman agreed to let the city out early as long as they give Turnbough the resources he needs.
“Spend the money upfront, don’t try to do it later on,” Heitman advised.
White said they have been working towards purchasing equipment over the last 24 hours. They purchased one new civilian package Dodge Charger.
John and Heitman shared grants available but said the city needs to be up-to-date on its reports to the state before they are eligible, which they are currently not. Turnbough said he hasn’t made any traffic stops yet, so they will need a way to do that first.
“The best thing we can do is work something out to take back to the council,” White said. “It’s crazy for me to pay Osage County to dispatch us for 90 days.”
John said they can sign the memorandum of understanding (MOU) to work with each other immediately.
“I would like our department to work in unison with you guys,” White said. “I think we’ve come to a pretty common ground.”
Turnbough suggested having a sit-down conversation with the sheriff’s department a few weeks before to see where everyone is. Bray said they need to be in constant contact.
Padgett asked Heitman if having the department up and running by Jan. 1 was going to be possible.
“As long as you can get equipment,” Heitman said. “I’ll be honest, I think the city will really struggle with only three officers.”
John added that they will start adding up payroll with overtime costs when people are working past their shifts to get things done, which is what they ran into previously.
“We’ve looked into two reserves yesterday, but we want to ultimately figure out how to get the best police department we can get and end this having the best relationship with you guys,” White said. “One is just as important as the other.”
John said getting the department running in 60 to 90 days can be done, but they have to move quickly.
White plans to present the sheriff’s counter offer at the Oct. 11 board meeting.
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