Ashland Police Department Responds to Tax Proposal Concerns
By: Ernie Wren
With the proposed sales tax on the ballot next week, Police Chief Gabe Edwards has provided information and context to concerns expressed on social media and around town. Chief Edwards emphasizes that he wishes to be transparent and open with why the tax increase is needed, and where the funds will be used.
1. They don’t have time to patrol at night, but they have time to fly drones and make comedy videos.
Response: It’s not at all a matter of having time to patrol at night. It’s much more than “having time.” It’s a matter of protecting the staff we have in place now. Covering 24x7x365 with a limited number of people has caused burnout amongst existing staff members. When one person on the night shift calls in sick, takes vacation, or becomes injured, someone has to fill that void. The temporary change to our schedule was to enable officers to have guaranteed time away from work to refresh, spend quality time with their family, and not have to worry about being called into work on a moment’s notice until we returned to full-staff. We still at this time have an officer on light-duty and we just recently filled a vacancy with a new recruit that will start training with our department this summer. This vacancy existed from October to March. Having effectively two positions empty for five to six months has made it impossible to maintain our 24x7x365 operational tempo without overworking other patrol staff.
When I got into law enforcement, police officer/deputy sheriff positions were very competitive. Hundreds of applicants would line up for one or two positions. In today’s times, quality police officers are hard to come by and personnel are difficult to replace. That doesn’t mean someone is irreplaceable, it simply means they’re difficult to replace. We could easily hire some random person with a POST license and hand them the keys to a car and put them to work. But doing so creates a gigantic liability for the city, both fiscally and in terms of the department’s image with the community. We strive to hire the best of the best. We want officers that are a good fit for our community and our department while also displaying the skills and expertise necessary to excel as an officer within our department.
With regards to fly drones and make comedy videos – much of our interaction on social media is a means of engaging the community in which we serve while at the same time portraying the human side of the badge. Another huge reason for the content we post to social media is intended to build an online presence that is attractive to potential law enforcement candidates. Our officers generally make less than surrounding departments. Our department generally lacks the attractive assignments of larger departments. By having a strong social media presence that shows who we are, we are able to attract candidates to our department that would otherwise simply go elsewhere for more money or better assignments. Very little time is actually spent on our social media presence and a fair amount of our content is created using personally owned equipment and posted off the clock and from home.
2. They stopped directing traffic at the school crossing when an officer got bumped because it wasn’t safe. But isn’t that what public safety officers do? And they just let Kindergartners fend for themselves.
Response: I’ll be very frank here – the police department doing traffic control at the school is, in hindsight, an activity we should have never started. This was a practice started by former Chief of Police Lyn Woolford as a means for him to engage with and get to know the community. At the time, as a newly appointed Chief this was a very reasonable measure for Mr. Woolford to take. However. as years progressed, doing traffic control at the intersection of Liberty Lane and Henry Clay Boulevard before and after school became less and less about the safety of pedestrians and became more and more a function of getting traffic to quickly and smoothly flow through this intersection at the two times a day where it experiences large traffic volume. The fact remains that there is only a small percentage of the student body who are also pedestrians that cross this 4-way intersection, and the vast majority of those pedestrian students are accompanied by an adult. It’s also very important to note when we stopped directing traffic, we continued placing a police officer at the intersection to help children cross the street. We have only since stopped fulfilling this function as the Southern Boone County School District has hired crossing guards and assigned volunteers to ensure pedestrian students cross this intersection safely.
What some fail to consider is when a police department is understaffed (even fully staffed, we are understaffed), why should we place an officer in a risky situation at a risky location simply for the convenience of the motoring public? It’s not good business practice and is an avoidable risk. If an officer becomes injured while standing in a busy intersection and is unable to work as a result of being injured, then not only are we creating a financial liability for the city, but we are also not doing what we can to ensure the community as a whole receives adequate police protection. Everyone who gets into the law enforcement profession understands the job is dangerous. But we also have obligations to return home safe after the end of each shift, so the risks we take on a daily basis are quite calculated. Deliberately placing ourselves in situations and instances of unnecessary and avoidable risks is not what any police officer, firefighter, or medic signs up for.
3. Gabe wants new cars, equipment, and guns, but won’t really get more officers.
Response: Anyone who is entitled to address me by my first name knows me well enough to know that claim is factually inaccurate. Cars, equipment, and guns are a necessity of every police department in every corner of the country. To suggest this tax measure is intended to support a wish list fraught with unnecessary gadgetry is simply ignorant and short sighted. The bottom line is, our primary focus is increasing the number of police personnel employed by the Ashland Police Department. And as the number of personnel increases, so must the inventory of police equipment. Moreover, we are trying to attract quality applicants to come to work in a city where the pay and benefits for a starting patrol officer are not enough to enable them to afford the median home cost in our community of $300,000. When pay is increased to begin bridging the gap between salary and cost of living, other areas of the budget suffer – thus the need for more income. Cars, uniforms, duty gear, and personal safety equipment wear out and have to be replaced at fairly regular intervals. During FY2023, we purchased new patrol rifles using already budgeted and Board approved capital equipment funds which enabled us to ensure every patrol officer has a department issued rifle as opposed to either not having one or being required to use personally owned equipment. The primary need for this sales tax initiative is to invest in personnel. This will include hiring more officers, replacing expired safety equipment such as body armor, and invest in the development and training of our officers so they can continue to support and serve our community.
4. City Staff has already taken Water and Sewer Funds to increase public safety in FY 2024, so why do we need a sales tax increase?
Response: Public Safety is funded by the General Fund. The General Fund revenue sources include sales tax revenue, personnel and property tax revenue, charges for services such as building permits and business licenses, and other general type business activities such as franchise agreements and leases. Water and Sewer funds do not public safety activities. The sales tax ballot measure comes from months of discussion and workshopping at the Board of Aldermen level to address the need for additional funding in certain departments. The initial discussion focused primarily on the need for additional street funding. The initial funding mechanism discussed was impact fees, which would be a fee paid by a developer or a homebuilder on each new lot created in the City of Ashland. Through engagement with the public, the Board resoundingly heard concerns with this approach as it would not be a guaranteed, sustainable, or robust funding mechanism and would have negative impacts on the price of homes in Ashland. Hearing these concerns, the Board asked what would be more appropriate and these same folks touted the longstanding successful support of tax initiatives in Ashland. The Board listened to these thoughts and ideas and through much deliberation agreed to place a sales tax measure on the ballot as it appears. The Board also felt it was important to offer a property tax rate reduction as part of this ballot measure to help offset the sales tax increase felt my residents that shop locally. The general public can find more information about this sales tax ballot measure on our website, under the document center, at www.ashlandmo.us or by contacting City Hall at email@example.com .
5. Do we have a crime problem here?
Response: The short answer is, yes. The longer answer is that the majority of crime in Ashland involves property crimes (i.e. thefts from vehicles, fraud, etc.). And while violent crime is certainly not rampant in Ashland like it is in nearby cities, we do have violent crime in Ashland. Just in the five years I’ve worked for the City of Ashland alone, we’ve had two homicides. Most of the violent crime we encounter is either domestic related or is some sort of offense perpetrated against a juvenile, and due to the sensitive nature of those cases we cannot talk about it publicly, thus people don’t hear about it. Even with the majority of our crime being property related, property crimes are very taxing on resources and often times take weeks of follow-up investigation to solve. Lastly, every year we see an increase in calls for service. This is to be expected because the number of people living in Ashland, and the number of people visiting Ashland has also steadily increased. We post our monthly call statistics to our website and our Facebook page.
6. City should have proposed a half cent sales tax just for roads, it would be a slam dunk. They are getting tired of combined/shared taxes.
Response: There is no arguing that selling a tax to fill potholes is a “slam dunk.” Everyone hates having to drive around them or worse yet to pay for an alignment on their car. The reality is, people tend to take public safety for granted and don’t think about what goes into running a well-organized, properly staffed, properly trained, and adequately equipped public safety organization. Cops and firefighters are like drinking water – when the demand is there, we just appear and very few people stop to think about what goes into making that happen. The stark reality is Ashland’s population has exploded in recent years. It is our job to attempt to keep up with that growth from a public safety perspective and ensure we have enough patrol officers within the department to keep our community safe and adequately serviced.
7. Not happy over lack of night patrols and APD posting that to social media.
Response: Something the police department has historically lacked is transparency with the community. When I took over as Chief of Police, I vowed to be open and transparent with the community. Sometimes being transparent means telling the community about hard decisions that we ourselves don’t like making. But, I cannot maintain my commitment of transparency if we only share the good news and hide the bad news.
8. Seems to be a belief out there that if the taxes fail, the Board will go back to the developer fees idea. City needs to encourage more retail businesses, like cannabis, for more revenue, and not taxes.
Response: The City has seen many recent successes in the commercial and retail market. For example, the new Break Time in East Ashland Plaza, Taco Bell, and Scooters all contribute to our sales tax generation and give our residents and visitors more opportunities to shop within our community and thus increase our sales tax revenue as a City. City staff is engaged almost daily with meeting with potential new businesses and developer in an effort to bring more commercial and retail opportunities to Ashland. The general public can reference the monthly Community Development report that is included in the second meeting of the month Board meeting packet on our website for current trends and statistics. Economic development is a challenge for any community, especially over the last few years where we were faced with a global pandemic, the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic, and now further economic instability. Few people want to start a new business during these times of economic uncertainty. At the same time, availability of land and buildings are the largest barrier to new businesses opening up in Ashland. Frankly, we are elated with the success we have seen over the last few years. We have seen that even in the midst of a pandemic and in the times of economic uncertainty after, our community is still growing and prospering. Homes are still being built in Ashland, businesses are still opening in Ashland or staying open in Ashland, and the City is still constantly approached by potential new businesses and developers. Unfortunately, we are currently playing catchup. Homes have been built in Ashland faster than retail and commercial ventures can be secured or built. In the ideal situation, we would have sufficient tax revenue generating entities in Ashland to fully support the needs of our Police Department and Streets Department. That is simply not currently the case. This sales tax ballot measure is necessary to provide the services our residents demand and there is unfortunately no other mechanism at the disposal of the Board of Aldermen to financially satisfy the needs of the community and these departments.