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July 24, 2005

Record-Eagle/Patrick Sullivan
Al Bluhm will vote for the sheriff's department millage, partly because he wants to save the marine patrol.

Public safety millage would preserve police

County wants five full-time deputies

Record-Eagle staff writer

      BEULAH - Benzie County commissioners favor a millage that would both stave off sheriff's department cuts and increase the size of the department.
      On Aug. 2, Benzie County voters will be asked to approve a .6-mil request to pay for five full-time deputies, preserve a school liaison officer, maintain marine and snowmobile patrol and add a narcotics officer.
      The millage would be in effect for four years and raise an estimated $522,731 in the first year. That amounts to about a $60 tax for a $100,000 house.
      Benzie voters last year rejected a jail millage request to replace funds lost after officials discovered they failed to implement a Headlee Amendment rollback for a millage passed in 1989. The county overcharged taxpayers more than $2.7 million over more than a decade.
      If the millage fails, Sheriff Robert Blank said he will cut overnight road patrol, meaning patrols would stop at midnight or 2 a.m. County officials say two state police troopers stationed in the county could not cover for the lost patrols.
      If approved, the millage would pay for two deputies not currently in the department's budget, including a Traverse Narcotics Team officer. The millage would also fund a school liaison officer, a position previously funded through a federal grant that expires this year.
      The request also puts at stake marine and snowmobile patrols that are 80-percent funded by state grants.
      The county contributes only about $14,000 each year to the marine and snowmobile program, but Donald Howard, chairman of the county board, said those items weren't tossed into the millage mix to lure voters worried about safety on lakes and trails.
      They were included, Howard said, because the county could not come up with its $14,000 share if the millage is defeated.
      "You fail to realize we are down to bare bones here," Howard said. "You have to have the match money committed to get the grant. We will not have the match money if the millage is not passed."
      County administrator Chuck Clarke said marine and snowmobile patrols were included in the millage because they are part-time positions that would have to be cut before full-time positions, due to police union demands.
      Blank, Howard, Clarke and other commissioners will continue touring the county in the days leading up to the vote.
      Howard said he worries about slower response time for police calls. Opportunities to catch drug dealers in traffic stops might falter if the millage fails, he said.
      At a League of Women Voters forum in Honor this month, commissioner Mark Roper voiced support for adding a narcotics officer to the regional drug enforcement unit.
      "With what's happened with the drugs and the situation in the whole country, I think it would be a very pertinent for us to get back into that organization," Roper said.
      Much of the millage campaign has focused on public relations for a department plagued by misconduct by sheriff's personnel and lawsuits over access to public information.
      Most recently, a circuit judge ordered Blank and Benzie County to pay the Record-Eagle $72,000 in legal fees after the newspaper won a lawsuit over Blank's refusal to turn over department documents as required by the state Freedom of Information Act.
      Blank also lost two other state FOIA suits and the county and its insurer paid out well over $1 million in recent years in settlements to people who sued the department over various abuses.
      "I'm optimistic that we're beginning to have people understand that they're really voting for their public safety, and they're not voting for who occupies the office of the sheriff," Howard said.
      Some residents say they plan to vote for the millage because they want to see deputies on the road during the summer.
      "I'm in favor of it, what with the tourists around, we need them," said Sheila Priest, a Benzonia Township resident who works at Good Stuff Resale in Benzonia. "A lot of people I don't think are for it, but when they need them, hey."
      Other residents just don't want to see their taxes increase.
      "I'm trying to build a home right now, so I probably don't want more taxes," said Lindsay Lafleur, a Lake Ann resident.
See Related Story:
      Benzie sheriff admits shooting story was embellished - July 24, 2005

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