Town candidates split on consolidating cops
Some are hesitant to give up town’s police force or reduce numbers, but not Stanford.
By Benjamin Graham, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
October 24, 2012
The four candidates running for two seats on the Jackson Town Council differ about how much money the town needs to spend on its police department.
The candidates agree that combining parts of town and county law enforcement would help save money but disagree on the amount of future consolidation they would support.
Jim Stanford came out the strongest this week against law enforcement spending, which he said is high for a small community like Jackson.
Hailey Morton, the top vote-getter in the primary, said the police force already runs a tight ship and she would hesitate to cut funding for public safety.
Jim Genzer said he doesn’t support combining the town police department with the Teton County Sheriff’s Office but isn’t comfortable with the amount of money allocated to police.
Phillip Cameron said the town’s spending on cops is justified because public safety is one of government’s basic responsibilities.
The issue of consolidation has emerged many times over the years, often spurred by questions about law enforcement spending.
It arose again at a council forum Oct. 17 when candidates were asked how they would balance the town budget.
“The town police budget is the single- biggest item we spend our general fund money on,” Stanford said at the forum.
Consolidation should be considered to increase efficiency, he said.
“In a valley where we also have Park Service rangers, Forest Service rangers, Game and Fish wardens and state highway patrollers that are all enforcing laws, it makes no sense for the town and county to spend that much money on two separate law enforcement agencies,” Stanford said Tuesday.
Public safety constitutes 35 percent — about $5 million — of the town’s general fund for fiscal year 2013. The police force makes up $3.1 million of the public safety budget, by far the most of any town department.
Stanford, the fourth-place primary candidate, would not go as far as to say he supports disbanding the police force and giving the sheriff’s department responsibility for enforcing town laws. But he said he would consider it.
“Ultimately the goal would be to have one law enforcement agency for a community of this size,” he said.
He would do so only with care and believes more officers are necessary during the crowded summer months, he said.
“Aside from high health insurance costs for town staff, there’s really not much in the town’s budget you can look at and say we can cut,” Stanford said.
“That’s one of the most fundamental roles of local government,” said Cameron, the third-place finisher in the primary election. “I think it’s reasonable that it takes up that percentage of the operating budget.”
The large number of tourists visiting the area each summer requires extra cops, he said.
Cameron does not support full consolidation, at least not now.
“Right now, if we wanted to hand over all law enforcement to the county, residents of town and town council would lose significant ability to guide law enforcement and law enforcement policy,” he said. “It would be in the hands of a single elected official, the sheriff.”
Past conversations about combining town and county law enforcement involved the sheriff’s department swallowing the town’s police force.
The sheriff is elected by residents, while the police chief is hired by the town administrator.
“From my understanding, if we go that route, it’s very hard to come back from it,” Cameron said.
The town and county could continue to consolidate in smaller ways, such as combining efforts for specialty skills training and equipment, he said.
Genzer, the second-place vote getter in the primary, has a similar view on combining law enforcement with the county, but he showed little concern over the police department’s budget.
“I really like the idea of having a police chief and police force that are right here, accountable to the people of Jackson,” Genzer said.
The town and county have already consolidated in effective ways, he said.
“We have one call center for both town and county,” he said. “Town has taken over security at the airport.”
While Genzer said law enforcement is a priority, he said he wasn’t sure about the amount of spending the police department requires.
“I’ve looked through the budget, it is big bucks,” he said.
Morton agreed that law enforcement is already working to consolidate but said the police department is running a lean budget.
“We’re very tight with the staffing,” Morton said. “The budget is used well. I always hesitate to do cuts on safety items.”
She would potentially support consolidation, she said, but feared that restructuring would be difficult.
“It’s not just — let’s consolidate and it’s fine, ” she said. “It’s a longer, in-depth process.”
The town and county are already doing a good job of consolidating, she said, pointing to the dispatch center.
“I think that the police force is doing a good job and they’re keeping us safe,” she said. “And I think we run a pretty lean department.”
Councilor candidates are competing for two open seats. General elections take place Nov. 6.
More News&Guide election stories covering candidates’ stances on a variety of issues are available at JHNewsandGuide.com/election.php.