Town police funding still under discussion

Having officers share cars.

Selling or renting out part of the police station.

Cutting back the number of paid officers.

Writing more tickets to make up the difference between the police department’s budget requests and what the council might end up allocating.

Those were all ideas that Nashville Town Council members brought up during a budget work session Aug. 25, as the council examines how the town’s tax money is being spent now and how it will be budgeted for 2022.

No budget decisions were made during the work session, and all council members are not all united in the thought that maybe the way money has been budgeted in years past should change. Two of the newer members, Anna Hofstetter and Nancy Crocker, were doing most of the talking and asking most of the questions about why the police department’s budget takes up 66 percent of the town’s general fund.

About a dozen people were in the audience of the Aug. 25 meeting, including a county police officer, a town officer and two officers’ wives, but audience members were not allowed to speak this time. Several of them expressed support for the Nashville police during an Aug. 10 work session about the budget. They’ll also get to speak when the budget moves to the stage of a public hearing, said President Jane Gore.

The budget is balanced now and the council can cover what the police department had budgeted for 2021 — $496,798 out of the general fund, plus another $120,393 from a grant and public safety income tax revenue.

There are eight areas of the town’s general fund budget where some more money needs to be allocated next year, but the town is expecting a slight bump in tax revenue for 2022, so those aren’t anticipated to be a big problem.

As in past years, Nashville Clerk-Treasurer Brenda Young provided the council with a budget worksheet so they could see how they could fund certain areas next year based on historical expenses.

Crocker, in her third year working with the town budget, suggested that maybe it’s time to start from scratch. She has concerns about how the town is going to fund other needs in the future, like taking care of the town’s water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure.

The town has been working on grants and other funding opportunities through the state and federal governments for some of those projects; other long-term plans, such as the stormwater plan, remain unfunded at this time.

Part of what Crocker and municipal adviser Dax Norton have been studying is how to revise the distribution of tax money among funds to more accurately reflect the role of the staff members they are paying for. “Then, after we get done seeing where everyone’s pay comes from, we can plug the numbers in … and see where we come out,” she said.

The town wants to make sure it is paying a good wage that matches the duties of the employees, she said.

Nashville’s police officers have consistently been paid less than officers from other nearby communities and departments, leading to high turnover rates and recurring expenditures to retrain new officers when experienced ones leave.

Hofstetter said she’d been researching public safety budgets in other small communities and found that in Indiana towns with fewer than 10,000 people, an average of 32.5 percent of the general fund budget goes toward public safety. She did not know if that included expenses for police cars or a police station if those departments had a separate building. The Nashville police station has a mortgage payment of $12,771 per year. Until 2012, the police shared office and hallway space in the back of Town Hall.

Crocker said that the town council doesn’t dictate how Chief of Police Ben Seastrom spends his budget; he could decide what he could afford to pay for. But Seastrom said that’s not accurate; the council does dictate in its salary ordinance how many officers he is allowed to have and what their pay range should be.

Hofstetter said she wanted to hear creative ideas over the next few weeks about how the town can pay its officers fairly and stay within a reasonable budget. “We can’t afford to allocate two-thirds of our budget to the police,” she said.

Some of the ideas Crocker threw out were getting rid of some police cars and having officers share, or renting out half the police station. “There are a lot of things we can cut besides people,” she said.

One of the ways the Nashville police can draw applicants is the benefits, like allowing officers a take-home car, Seastrom said. Also, he is required to spend part of his budget on mandates like annual training, and he needs to have enough staff that he can rotate them through shifts for 24-hour coverage and give them vacations and sick time, he said.

“The moment we start cutting benefits, everyone leaves like rats leaving a sinking ship,” he said.

Hofstetter mentioned later on in the conversation that maybe police should be writing more parking tickets — though she added that she is against the idea of making public safety “for profit.” Crocker said she didn’t think that would be providing public safety, which is the overarching purpose of the police department.

Crocker asked Seastrom to provide a business plan and a needs assessment for the police department and for those reports to be based on statistics like the ones other council members have been gathering. One piece of data she wants to know is how many people the Nashville police help are tourists and how many are locals. Seastrom said it’s hard to come to a concrete number on that.

He added that law enforcement isn’t all the town officers do; they’re often first on scene if there’s a medical call that the volunteer fire department can’t respond to right away, as the firefighters are all volunteers.

“That brings up another point,” Crocker said. “Why aren’t we giving more money to them?” Nashville volunteer firefighters have been lobbying the council for years to try to find a way to create a paid or partially paid staff as volunteers have dwindled.

In the ‘90s, the town had only three police officers working and nobody worked after 10 p.m., Seastrom said. He doesn’t want to go back to that time, when break-ins happened at shops overnight and the county officers on duty weren’t covering the town unless there was an emergency.

“We built this department from a single officer in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s to where we are now because of demand from the community,” he said. The council at that time saw that public safety wasn’t being provided for with the tax dollars town residents were paying, he said.

Crocker wondered if the town could reduce the number of officers it employs and then pay the county sheriff’s department something to help cover the town.

“Then you’re not saving anything,” Seastrom said.

Later on in the discussion, he suggested maybe the town could refinance the police station or police cars to save money.

Norton, who attended the meeting remotely, suggested the council look into reallocating the money collected for the cumulative capital development fund. Currently, portions of it go to streets, drainage and the fire department, but the council could change that ordinance. He said he knows of other communities that direct it toward public safety.

“I don’t want to lose any officers. I wish we could pay all of them $100,000 a year and keep you all forever. But I can’t always get what I want,” Crocker said.

And if the council decides it doesn’t want to cut the police budget, “What are we going to give up? Because we have to give up something. That’s kind of the bottom line.”

At the next budget meeting, at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 7, the council plans to learn more about how each fund can be spent by law.