By Edd Pritchard
Citing funding cuts that are eating away at the sheriff’s budget, Lake Township trustees have decided to establish a police department.
They hope to persuade residents to pass a 4.5-mill levy Tuesday.
The estimated $2.59 million generated by the property tax would allow the Uniontown Police Department to expand to 20 full-time police officers who would patrol the entire township.
Residents want more police protection, Trustee John Arnold said. “We really don’t have any police presence or protection.”
But while trustees are pondering an expansion of the Uniontown department, Stark County Sheriff Tim Swanson is telling residents he can provide the service at a lower price. Trustees counter that Swanson is ignoring some key expenses when detailing his estimate.
Sheriff’s deputies provide police service throughout most of the township, except for Hartville and the roughly 9-square-mile Uniontown district in the northwest corner.
But the sheriff’s department has only two deputies available to patrol in rural areas around the county, including Lake Township. It can sometimes take up to an hour for a deputy to answer a call. In some cases residents are being told to use the Internet to make theft and burglary reports, Arnold said.
Residents need and deserve better police service, said Uniontown police Chief Harold Britt.
“We all rely on our neighbors basically to watch our homes when we’re not there,” said Britt, who lives in a portion of Lake Township patrolled by the sheriff.
Lake would like to become the fifth Stark County township — Jackson, Lawrence, Marlboro and Perry are the others — with its own police department. Plain Township has 2.25-mill levy it uses to hire sheriff to provide police services.
Lake’s plans are for a property tax to replace a 6.7-mill levy used to pay for Uniontown police operations. The levy costs Uniontown residents who own a $100,000 house about $206 per year. If the new levy passes, the cost will drop to $137.81 per year because of the lower mileage.
Meanwhile, residents living in Lake Township will see property taxes rise to provide the police service.
If the new tax passes, Lake trustees would expand the Uniontown police department’s service area to include the entire township, minus the village of Hartville. The department would have at least four patrol officers on duty per shift each day, in some cases more, Britt said.
It’s not the first time that trustees have tried to establish a township wide police department. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea in 2005 and in 1998.
In 2005, Swanson told residents he could provide police service — through a contract to supply deputies — at a lower price than the cost for Uniontown to expand. He’s making the same claim this year, and that has angered township officials.
Swanson said he can offer a program similar to one his department provides Plain Township, where deputies are assigned to patrol. A 2.25-mill levy — up for renewal this year — provides most of the $1.8 million that Plain pays for deputy’s wages, cruisers and equipment. The township buys cruisers that are serviced by the sheriff’s department.
In July, Swanson’s office asked Lake Township officials for operation costs of the proposed Lake Township police department, as well as costs for the Uniontown department. After receiving the information, Swanson sent trustees a Sept. 8 letter saying he could provide services for $1.85 million, as opposed to the $2.59 million the proposed levy will raise.
Swanson wanted to meet with Lake trustees, but that hasn’t happened. “At this point in time we’re not paying much attention to it because we have to pass the levy,” Trustee Ellis Erb said.
Some residents aren’t happy that trustees haven’t answered Swanson.
Jim Miller, who has opposed past attempts to create a township police department, said he’s disappointed that residents weren’t given an opportunity to discuss the sheriff’s proposal. “That was kept from us,” Miller said.
Erb and fiscal officer Ben Sommers said the township never sought a bid from the sheriff, in part because of the problems the county is having funding the sheriff’s department. Erb noted that the county needs to pass the 0.5-percent sales tax to have money to continue current operations.
Lake officials also question Swanson’s claim that he can provide better service for less money. They note that in addition to finding $1.85 million for the sheriff’s contract, the township will have to find money to buy more police cruisers for deputies to use.
“I’d take a long, hard look before I give it to him,” Erb said of contracting with the sheriff for police protection.
Lake trustees said they prefer having a police department that operates in the community. If sheriff’s deputies handled police duties in the township, they would be driving from the sheriff’s office in northeast Canton, Erb said. “I think we’d be better off if we had them right here.”
Having township police gives residents “significantly more control,” Arnold said. Local officers can provide better service and do a better job of connecting with residents, he said.
Britt said Uniontown officers can provide the township with services beyond road patrols. The list includes community policing, neighborhood watch, daily vacation checks, a juvenile diversion program and a senior citizen watch program.
He also said his officers have been frustrated when they are called, but can’t assist residents on the edges of the Uniontown district — the Stark County line on the north and west, Heckman Street NW on the south and Market Avenue N on the east.
Swanson counters that he’s not happy when Uniontown officers leave their jurisdiction to answer calls that would be handled by deputies. The sheriff and Britt list a handful of incidents where Uniontown officers have responded before deputies arrived.
Uniontown officers don’t want to sit nearby and wait when someone needs help, Britt said. “That kind of bothers us.”