Evart to propose public safety millage to maintain, improve services

EVART — Evart Police Chief Kendra Backing knows residents have a lot of decisions to make in the upcoming November election, but she hopes one issue on the ballot will garner overwhelming support.

Backing is proposing a public safety millage of 1.8 mills over a five-year period, which is expected to raise $68, 479 for police and fire services in its first year.

The revenue is much needed, Backing said. The city’s decreasing tax revenue is causing financial strain in many areas of the budget, including public safety funds.

The Evart Police Department is stretched thin, with only three officers on staff after the city was forced to lay off an officer in May.

“Only having three people working in our department is a struggle,” Backing said. “We do the best to cover our shifts, working nights and weekends and anything else that pops up, because you never know when crime will happen, but we’re very understaffed.”

The police department office also has no one to man the phones after the loss of part-time secretary. Although they would like to fill the vacated position, the money to hire someone just isn’t available, Backing said.

The office is often locked because officers are busy in court, on the road or handling calls. Phones too often go unanswered because officers are constantly handling their main duties and don’t have time to stay in the office, Backing said.

“We’re hoping the millage will allow us to rehire a part-time secretary, so officers don’t need to be in the office and can be spending more time on the road and in the community,” she said.

Backing also is hoping to hire a part-time officer to help pick up the gaps in the shifts and allow for vacation time for current officers, who rarely are able to take vacation and consistently take calls on their days off.

The average Evart property owner would pay $68 each year or $5.70 each month, and the money generated would go specifically toward fire and police services.

City Manager Zack Szakacs said the city is responsible for paying $30,000 from the general fund each year to pay for Evart fire services, and a portion of the collected funds from the millage could be used to offset that cost as well.

“This will not only help maintain the police services for citizens, but will help relieve the bleed from the general fund,” Szakacs said.

In 2013, the Evart Police Department received 1,760 calls for service, while the Evart Fire Department received approximately 470 calls.

Szackas has worked in many communities and Evart is the first to not have a police millage, he said.

The city has sought grants, consolidated services, frozen wages and taken many other cost reducing measures, but still are in need of additional assistance from tax payers, Szakacs said.

“We’re doing everything possible to spend tax payers’ money wisely, but it’s come to a time we need to ask for a little more support to give them the services they are accustomed to,” he said.

In a citywide survey administered last year, results showed that of all Evart residents who took the survey, the service ranked most important to them was law enforcement. Additionally, 43 percent of residents in that survey said they would be in favor of raising taxes to maintain those services.

“This makes me very hopeful the millage will pass,” Backing said. “Obviously, there is no guarantee, but I think the results are very telling and show what this community values.”

The funds the millage would generate would give the department some breathing room, Backing said, and ensure that Evart maintains its own police department and staff is not further reduced.

One of the three full-time officer officers was hired on a grant in 2012, and 75 percent of the officer’s wages are paid by the federally funded grant. The grant will expire in 2015, and without the millage funds, the city may not be able to afford to maintain the officer after the grant expires, Backing said.

If the millage passes, it would also eliminate the possibility of consolidation with the Osceola County Sheriff’s Department, which is an idea that’s been discussed in the past.

“We are a young, motivated department,” Backing said. “We are out at all the events the city puts on and want to continue to stay involved in the community, but we need help financially to continue our services at the level this community expects and requires.”