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Bethesda considering county law enforcement

BETHESDA — Village Council is debating the future of law enforcement and whether to take an offer from Belmont County Sheriff David Lucas to provide deputies on patrol.

Police Chief Pete Busack reported he works 32 hours a week, but Village Administrator Dirk Davis has said the $33,000 levy and about $11,000 in ticket revenues were insufficient and has suggested an additional levy may be needed.

During the May 28 meeting, Mayor Samantha Burkhead said the sheriff had given a presentation and discussed the services his department could provide. According to Lucas’ information, his department responded to 231 calls to 911 in Bethesda from Jan. 1, 2019, through May 21, 2020, and the Bethesda police responded to 184. Lucas said his office brings more resources to the table, including three K-9 units that focus on drug work to better enforce and monitor drug situations in the village, a full support staff and five deputies per shift. Lucas said surrounding communities have contracted with his office.

Lucas said he would establish a satellite office in the village building with deputies present at all hours of the day and a designated patrol in the area.

Lucas’ department would be asking for the use of village facilities and levy funds. Burkhead said the sheriff is also asking that his department take ownership of village police vehicles.

Burkhead said via text message that the village had been expected to make a decision during the June meeting, but that was canceled due to concerns about a recent spike of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Guests and some council members did not agree with the proposed stipulation about the police vehicles according to council minutes.

Other options include having only Busack work, and having Busack work 20 hours and hire two part-time officers to work the odd hours. The village could also search out ways to raise more money, or to explore the sheriff’s department.

“If we reached the point where we absolutely had to shut down the department and rebuild, losing the police vehicles would be a huge loss. We don’t want to shut down the department, we were just seeing what options were out there,” she texted.

Guests included Fred Thompson, former sheriff and police chief, who said the sheriff was obligated to provide law enforcement to all communities. Thompson expressed doubt about the number of hours that would be provided.

Councilwoman Cindy Foose brought up the tight finances of the police department. Councilwoman Jordan Castello expressed concern the village would not have dedicated coverage. Councilman Jay Van Horn disagreed with giving away the police vehicles.

Councilwoman Carol Merritt said she has issues with the county responding to calls.

Castello proposed a 3.5 percent of income tax to fund the police department. There was discussion about whether it could be put into action without a ballot vote.

Guest and former councilman Chuck Little said agreeing to the sheriff’s offer would be a way of removing Busack. During prior council meetings, village leaders had voiced some reservations about his performance and reluctance to officially designate him police chief, although many residents have spoken in his favor.

Burkhead said no one wanted to permanently shut down the police department, but it is necessary to find a way to operate within budget while maintaining needed coverage.

Some suggested annexing properties to increase the tax base, but Finance Director Rick Burkhead, Samantha Burkhead’s husband, said the village would not see benefits for five years. After more discussion, he said he would speak to the county auditor about the possibility of increasing the police levy. Samantha Burkhead said she has asked Busack to patrol more in mornings and evenings to increase police visibility and public support.

Council members also discussed the possibility of making the police department a beneficiary of the yearly gun bash or of holding another fundraiser for the department.

The village council meets at 6:30 p.m. the fourth Thursday monthly, but the coronavirus pandemic may lead to cancelations or delays.

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