Sheriff sergeants say millage proposal is about safety.

July 19, 2018

Sheriff sergeants say millage proposal is about safety.


By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

John Balowski and Jeremy King are sergeants with the Mason County Sheriff’s Office. Like the deputies they supervise, they work 12 hour shifts with a rotation of five days one week and two days the next week. A crew is made up of two deputies and a sergeant; there are a total of eight deputies and four sergeants, 12 officers who patrol a geographical area of 1,242 square miles and a year-round population of 28,705 people — which often triples in the summer — 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Though the shifts consist of three personnel, the reality is that 70 percent of the time there are only two officers on patrol at any given time, due to vacations, training, and court duty, according to Sheriff Kim Cole.

“The issue with only having two deputies on patrol at one time, on the average, comes down to safety,” King says. “Safety for the citizens and safety for the deputies. We are a small department and every one of us is dedicated to serve and protect this community. But, the public deserves better services than what we currently provide.”

Sgt. Jeremy King

“If I take a breaking and entering call up in Meade Township and my partner is down by Bass Lake, that’s a significant distance between the two of us,” Balowski says. “If I need backup, it could take my partner up to 20 minutes — running lights and siren — to get to me. This is not an extreme example, but a common occurrence.”

“There are many calls that take us off the road for several hours,” King says. “A serious car crash, particularly a fatality, requires several of us to investigate. A more common occurrence is a domestic dispute, which again requires several officers for our own safety and for the safety of those involved. A drunk driving arrest means a deputy is off the road for about three hours. That means that there is only one officer patrolling the majority of the county.”

On Aug. 7, voters in Mason County will be asked to vote on a request to approve an eight year millage at a rate of .3 mills to fund four additional deputies at the Mason County Sheriff’s Office. A mill is $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. On a home with a taxable value of $100,000, the cost would be $30 per year, or $2.50 a month.

Sheriff Cole says he does not take lightly the decision to ask the taxpayers for more money.

“This has been a process that has been discussed for well over a year on the committee level,” Cole says. “The reality is we can no longer function at the current staffing levels. I have been on this department for over 30 years and it has had the same level of staffing for most of that time. Though the types of calls we handle have not necessarily changed much, and crime levels are about the same, the amount of time we are required investigating and processing calls has significantly increased over the last three decades. In addition, the county’s general fund does not have the money to cover additional personnel. The county would have to cut services elsewhere in order for us to hire more deputies.”

Mason County Sheriff’s Office is not the only law enforcement agency that patrols in Mason County, however, it is the only department that covers the entire county around the clock. Ludington Police Department typically has two officers on patrol, who also work 12 hour shifts, according to Ludington Police Chief Mark Barnett. LPD does back up the sheriff’s office and Michigan State Police when necessary, but its officers are also obligated to cover the city of Ludington, with a year-round population of just over 8,000 (which, like the county, significantly increases during the summer). Scottville Police Department, like Ludington, is dedicated to cover that town’s 1,200 residents with one officer on duty. It’s officers will also backup other agencies when needed. The Michigan State Police Hart post consists of 13 troopers who cover four counties, Cole says. “There are a couple troopers assigned to cover Mason County, but the MSP is designed to pool its resources for major events in another area. It’s not unusual for those troopers to be sent to another county during their shift.”

Sgt. John Balowski

The sheriff’s office also backs up the other law enforcement agencies, naturally, which again means that the rest of the county is left without adequate protection.

“Compare our coverage to cities around metro Detroit,” Balowski says. “Many of those communities have populations of 100,000 people — similar to the summertime population in Mason County — and they have police forces with 10 times the personnel of the combined departments in Mason County, and cover a fraction of the geographical area that we cover here.”

Current staffing levels prevent law enforcement, no matter the agency, from adequately patrolling the county.

“We hear constantly from the public that we need to be out on US 10,” King says. “We all recognize that this highway has the highest traffic volume in the county and can be a dangerous stretch of road. But, the reality is, we can’t dedicate the personnel to patrol that road like we should. I can tell you that if I had a three to four person crew, that I would be sending one of my deputies to patrol US 10 for several hours a shift. That’s something that we just can’t do right now. We have to prioritize our calls and it’s not unusual for some people to wait several hours for us to respond on less emergent calls. That’s just not right. Those citizens called 911 and expect a law enforcement officer to respond in a timely manner.”

Understaffing also prevents the sheriff’s office from enforcing drug and alcohol laws. Balowski, who has received special training in drug-related traffic enforcement, says the best way to enforce drug laws is through traffic patrols.

“It’s a statistical fact that drug-related traffic incidences have increased significantly over the past decade,” Balowski says. “If we had more cars dedicated to traffic patrols, we would certainly deter the drug issues in this county.

“Just adding one more deputy would be a significant difference to our response times and in terms of citizens’ safety.”

Current staffing also prevents deputies from performing other duties.

“In our department, our deputies take on multiple roles,” Cole says. “By job description, the deputies are road patrol, but every one of them has other tasks.”

King, for instance, is responsible for making sure that the county’s registered sex offenders are compliant.

“I typically get at least one anonymous tip each week about a sex offender who may be out of compliance. There are 180 registered sex offenders in Mason County and it’s my job to check to make sure they are living at the address they say they are at. This is basically done when I have time in between calls, which is sometimes rarely.”

Other extra duties of road patrol deputies include crash scene investigation, tactical team, and school resource officer.

“The general public needs to understand that if there is a serious crash in this county, all our on-duty deputies are tied up on that crash,” King says. “We then have to call in crash scene investigators — who are specially trained and often off-duty — along with additional off-duty deputies to patrol the roads and take complaints. This equals overtime, which effects our operating budget.”

King and Balowski both emphasized that their concerns about understaffing are not complaints but rather facts of the job.

““I love my job and it is an honor to serve and protect the public,” King says. “I believe every single man and woman at the Mason County Sheriff’s Office would say the same thing. We just want to make sure that we can serve and protect the public safely.”

Sheriff Cole will host two informational events next week to discuss the election:

  • Wednesday, July 25, 6 p.m. at the Scottville Area Senior Center, 140 S. Main St., Scottville.
  • Thursday, July 26, 6 p.m., at Mason County District Library, Ludington branch, 217 E. Ludington Ave., Ludington.

This story is copyrighted © 2018, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

Tags: ,

Eats & Drinks

Eats & Drinks