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City of Wood Heights addresses police controversy, cites budget difficulties

May 5, 2018 – As previously reported by The Standard, the City of Wood Heights made the unanimous decision to disband the Wood Heights Police Department in a 4-0 vote, after a closed session. The decision came as a surprise to the city, and to the police department. None of the officers, all of whom are part-time, were informed ahead of the meeting, which led to the controversy.

When asked why the police department wasn’t invited to the meeting or alerted to the fact that the disbandment of the department was on the agenda, Mayor Robert Pettegrew claimed other personnel issues dictated the decision.

“We had other personnel issues brought up that night. Period. That’s all I’m going to say,” Pettegrew stated.

City Clerk Sondra Kasserman explained that personnel issues are one of three possible reasons why a meeting becomes a closed session.

“There are three different reasons that lead to a closed session,” Kasserman stated. “Legal, real estate, or personnel issues.” Sessions that touch upon those topics are closed, because the minutes of an open meeting become published, and a matter of public record. The closed session opens up when a vote is taken. But when dealing with legal issues, real estate, or personnel issues, privacy becomes a concern. The agenda ahead of the closed session stated that personnel issued would be discussed, and so it became a closed session that opened to record the vote, which was unanimous in favor of police disbandment.

“A closed session allows the board, the city clerk, and the mayor to go over issues that aren’t a matter of public record,” explained City Lawyer John Parker. “The police department didn’t necessarily, as a whole, need to be present. The fact that personnel issues were on the closed meeting agenda explains what the intention of the board was doing.”

The City, both in the interview and in the official statement released by Mayor Robert Pettegrew, which can be found, in full, in the opinion page of The Excelsior Springs Standard, cited budgetary reasons for the decision. The City is currently in need of around $30,000-plus in infrastructure repair, Pettegrew said, which doesn’t include street repairs. As such, the decision to disband the police department was made in order to save the city money.

“We budget on past history, using the past five years, and we are realistic in our budget,” Pettegrew said. “The budget figures over the past five years determines the current budget.”

Wood Heights Police Chief Jared Sartin admits that the police department does run as a deficit, but it’s providing a service and isn’t for-profit.

“Any city that uses their police department as a sole income revenue generating source has a police department for all the wrong reasons,” Sartin stated. He also said that the Wood Heights Police Department consistently comes under budget.

“I think it’s important to note that while the police department has been under budget, it runs at a deficit, even though they bring in an amount of money,” explained Parker. “But it doesn’t meet the budgeted amount needed to run the department. The remaining money has to be covered by the City’s general fund.”

Wood Heights voted against Proposition 1, which called for a sales tax increase to fund Capitol Improvements. Only 97 votes were cast, and 57 of them were “no.” This left the city with less revenue to fund improvements.

“The City of Wood Heights is one of the lowest-taxed cities in the area,” Parker added. “It’s not like money suddenly became an issue in April. It’s something that the City has been dealing with for some time. It just became more pressing” once recent ballot measures were taken into consideration.

“We have a financial report that’s available to the public. It’s posted online,” Kasserman said. However, as of May 9, 2018, the financials posted online3 only go through June 30, 2017.

Pettegrew pointed out that, once the Wood Heights Police Department officially disbands on May 18, residents will receive their police services via the Ray County Sheriff’s Department – a service for which they already pay taxes, the letter stated.

The Ray County Sheriff’s Department regularly patrols Wood Heights. They stated that response time is dependent upon where officers are located in the county, as well as the nature or severity of the incoming call. On average, response time is around 15 minutes. They note that they are also fully-staffed at this time.

City ordinances, which typically fall under the purview of the police department, will probably have to be handled by a Codes Enforcement Officer, for which the City has permission to hire, but hasn’t included the expense in their budget. However, Pettegrew stated that the cost of such an officer would be far less than the police department, which can employ as many as five officers, but currently has three employed. Fifteen man-hours are split between the three officers. In addition, Sartin receives a stipend and works additional hours.

Citizens of Wood Heights have an opportunity to make their concerns heard, Parker pointed out, on the third Monday of every month, barring any holidays or other qualifying circumstances.

“If members of the Wood Heights community want something done differently, they’re more than welcome to the open meetings,” Parker stated. “There are parts of most meetings where, if a citizen wants, they can bring up new business to the board, and they have the opportunity to share what they would like the City to do.

“Specifically, if a ballot initiative is to be accomplished, the first step is to come speak to the Board of Aldermen.”

When asked if any personal animosity between the mayor and the police chief led to the decision to disband, Parker pointed out that the mayor did not vote. The decision was made by the board of aldermen.

“There was a perceived attitude on some people’s parts that we were having problems, but we were not,” Pettegrew added.

The Wood Heights Fire Protection District held a community discussion about the disbandment of the police department at the fire station on May 8.

By Samantha Kilgore • kimeberely@leaderpress.com

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3 Responses to City of Wood Heights addresses police controversy, cites budget difficulties

  1. charlene brunner Reply

    May 9, 2018 at 12:30 pm

    None of the reasons you can come up will excuse the fact that you did not let the officers know ahead of time and be included in the meeting. I am so glad that I do not live in Wood Heights. I hope an investigation will be done and Mr. Pettegrew and others are checked out. I could about guarantee that monies have been pocketed by him and others.

  2. Belinda Reply

    May 23, 2018 at 10:41 am

    Another thing that wasn’t mentioned is that we had two other officers working as volunteers without pay. Also, I have personally seen the Ray county sheriff’s department take 2 hours to respond to a call. I don’t blame them, they have alot of ground to cover. I can gaurantee crime will go up in this quiet little town once word gets out that we no longer have our own officers. Also, it was mentioned in letters and meeting about improvements to the local lake, we drove by recently and it is more the size of a pond. I am having difficulty understanding why they want to put so much effort and money into something that small, when the money could be used for protection. Also, alot of us would probably vote for a small increase in taxes if it means we have first responders available, even if it’s part time

  3. Joe Reply

    May 23, 2018 at 11:47 am

    Great, guess we should expect water bills to jump to over 200 a month

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