BESSEMER CITY Fourteen years after Bessemer City Council let Gaston County Police take over local law enforcement protection, the city is restarting its own police department.
At a council meeting on Jan. 28, Mayor Becky Smith broke a 3-3 tie and voted in favor of restoring the Bessemer City Police Department.
The startup date is July 1. Applications for a full-time police chiefs job are being accepted through Feb. 22.
For weeks, the police issue has been debated after Gaston officials said the annual fee to the city for police protection hasnt covered the countys costs. The current fee is $430,000. Under new terms proposed by the county for the new contract, which takes effect July 1, Bessemer City would pay $624,000 in 2014 and $1.1 million by 2018.
Smith said her tie-breaking vote was tough to make. We were pushed into a corner, she said. We had no choice. The county didnt give us any options we could live with.
She described the level of service county police provided to Bessemer City as remarkable.
Their case clearance rate in the city was 50 percent the highest in the nation, she said. They gave us the opportunity for a lot of police presence in town. We were very happy with the county police. We enjoyed the 14 years with them. But when you cant afford it, you cant afford it.
Under the original contract, the fee for police service in Bessemer City was supposed to increase no more than 5 percent annually, although Smith said sometimes it was 7 or 8 percent.
We never questioned what the county billed us, Smith said. If there was incorrect billing, thats their fault. We never failed to pay. We did nothing wrong. We fulfilled the contract to the letter. We cant pay the figure theyve given us. We cant do that to Bessemer City.
Looking at numbers
Gaston County Manager Jan Winters said that in 1998 the county offered police service to all municipalities, and Bessemer City was the only one that accepted at the time.
In the spring of 2012, Cherryville contacted the county about getting police protection, asking for the same deal as Bessemer City.
As Winters looked at the numbers, he recommended that county commissioners not renew the police contract with Bessemer City and negotiate a new rate.
There were no complaints with our police service, Winters said. They (police) were doing an outstanding job. However, the city decided maybe theyd like to have their own Police Department. Theyd like Bessemer City on the police car doors and their own identity back. And maybe do it a little bit less expensive.
County Commission Chairman Mickey Price hopes Bessemer City officials have made the right decision. Theyve got to live with their citizens, he said. But theyve got to realize the cost of policing.
Price said the fee should have changed years ago, but that everything was running smoothly, there were no complaints and nobody questioned the cost. When they did look, costs were going the wrong way, he said.
Even at this juncture, County Commissioner Joe Carpenter hopes we can work something out to everybodys advantage.
The Gaston County Police Department was created in 1957 by the state legislature and county commissioners, who hoped to take politics out of law enforcement. Its the only county police department in North Carolina and currently provides direct police service to 83,970 people in a 276-square mile area that includes the towns of Bessemer City, High Shoals and Spencer Mountain.
The department has 136 sworn officers and provides detectives, investigative assistance and other services to cities when requested.
A recent example is the patrol assistance county police gave to the Cherryville Police Department after a scandal there. The FBI lodged criminal charges against three Cherryville police officers; the police chief and a captain were suspended.
Gaston Police assisted Cherryville for 15 weeks, completing the service on Feb. 1.
Cherryville Mayor Bob Austell said help from the county police was much appreciated.
The Cherryville City Council looked into the possibility of having Gaston County Police take over local policing permanently. But Austell said the board had no interest in pursing the idea after finding out what it would cost.
Instead, Cherryville will keep its own Police Department, calling on the county for assistance as needed.
Meanwhile, Bessemer City is moving forward on starting a Police Department from scratch.
Winfield Hunter, interim director of criminal justice standards, a division of the N.C. Department of Justice, said the new chief will have plenty to do from personnel and equipment to budgets and managing police beats.
There will be a lot on the chiefs plate going in the door, said Hunter, who is former Cary police chief. But it will be an exciting time for whoever goes in. Itll be a very challenging opportunity for a new chief.
Bessemer City Manager James Inman is former police chief in the city of Locust, in Stanley and Cabarrus counties. In researching a new Police Department in Bessemer City, Inman worked with consultant Thomas Younce, retired police chief with N.C. State University.
The bottom line is we can do it cheaper than the county, Inman said. Thats mainly due to personnel costs.
Hes determined the city will need about $860,000 a year to run the operation. The department will start with five officers and increase to 11. Inman said salaries will be comparable to other small police departments in the county.
Some of the towns have called and told us theyd help us get started, Inman said. Weve really been blessed.
A city-conducted survey showed 70 percent of Bessemer City residents wanted a local police department, Inman said.
A small-town police department is the identity of a community, he said. These are the guys everybody knows and talks to.
In the mayors view, restarting the operation is a serious business that will affect Bessemer City for a long time to come. This has put us in a tough situation, Smith said. But we want the very best Police Department we can put together.
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