Youngtown has eliminated its longstanding police department and will contract with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to provide law enforcement services, effective today.
In a unanimous vote, the Town Council approved disbanding the seven-man police department after an emotional and combative meeting that lasted three hours Thursday night at Town Hall.
The decision means seven Youngtown officers are out of a job, effective immediately. Each will receive a one-month severance package.
After the meeting, Sgt. Dave Evans said he was appreciative of Youngtown giving him the opportunity to serve the community.
“I wish them the best. I’ll miss my co-workers,” Evans said. “I know MCSO will do a good job. This door’s closed, but I know another one will open.”
The 12-year veteran said it was heartwarming to hear all the community support throughout the past few weeks.
“When you say it’s a family, that’s an understatement,” he said. “The bonds we have with the community are great.”
Meantime, MCSO deputies will begin policing Youngtown, comprising roughly 6,100 residents, who can expect at least one deputy patrolling the community continuously with an additional four officers also on patrol at any given time.
Contracting with MCSO will cost Youngtown $1,066,933 this year and $850,398 next year, though the town will realize more than $1 million in savings — $410,045 in the first year and $626,580 in the second, based on town figures.
“We have to do what’s right as policymakers to keep the town going,” said Town Manager Lloyce Robinson. “There’s no good time to make this decision.”
Youngtown police Sgt. Mike Kessler has been hired as the town’s new public safety manager, whose full-time role will be as liaison for police, fire and code enforcement services. Kessler will work closely with MCSO Lt. Ken Booker, who works out of the nearby District 3 substation at Bell and Dysart roads in Surprise.
Town officials stressed that residents will not experience a negative impact with the change in command.
Besides saving money, town officials argued employing just seven officers was a safety hazard.
“This is an inherently dangerous situation,” Mayor Mike LeVault said. “What happens when a tragedy occurs because we haven’t tried to correct it?”
But if Thursday’s council meeting was any indication of town sentiment, residents don’t seem convinced a change was necessary and that cuts should have been made elsewhere in order to retain the officers.
A majority of residents said the council’s decision was a cold blow as many officers must now try to find gainful employment elsewhere — just weeks away from the holiday season — a process that can take several months in the law enforcement industry.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said MCSO just closed recruitment after hiring 170 officers.
“I’m going to do the best I can to hire them,” he said, adding the officers could become reservists or undertake off-duty work for MCSO or other Valley agencies. “This town must survive,” said Betty Alton, a 13-year resident. “Sometimes you must make tough decisions to survive.”
Alton argued “the way the council is going about this is wrong” when cuts could be made, for example, to the town’s library or to employee salaries.
“Our police department stuck through thick and thin with us and we’re treating them like this?” Alton said.
Former mayor Bryan Hackbarth said he’s gotten to know all of the outgoing officers on a personal level over the years.
“This is my family back there,” he said while pointing to and naming the officers. “You will not find a better bunch of police officers in the state of Arizona.”
Hackbarth, who was recalled in office in 2007 and replaced by LeVault, said he didn’t want to see the officers “thrown under the bus” and argued the council should allow them to stay on until the current fiscal year ends in order to find employment elsewhere.
“You’re disappointing this public,” he said to the council before a screaming match with LeVault unfolded. “Leadership starts at the top.”
The verbal sparring seemed to strike a nerve with LeVault.
While sympathetic to residents’ appreciation of the police force and taking part in government, the mayor was quick to question whether many of those speaking out against the town’s decision-making knew about or supported the property tax vote in May 2010.
Voters rejected a property tax increase in the 2010 election.
LeVault defended the town’s actions, providing harsh blowbacks to those who argued not funding a proposed dog park and community garden and shuttering the town’s library would put Youngtown back in the black. Those decisions would save less than $100,000.
In one instance, the mayor chided two women who were holding signs stating “Save Our Police, Save Our Town” and “Recall Mayor and Council” and interrupted the meeting with emotional remarks.
“We can’t be derelict in our responsibilities,” LeVault said. “This ‘pay-as-you-go’ type of government is an insane way to run a business.”
Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.