Can Purcellville afford to continue operating a full-time police department? That’s a fundamental question some Town Council members asked during Monday night’s budget work session.
The council members entered the meeting with a long list of proposed line-item cuts to make from Town Manager Robert Lohr’s proposed budget. In the Police Department, they ranged from cutting the overtime budget by as much as 58 percent and eliminating two requested positions to save tens of thousands of dollars to trimming $500 from the agency’s computer operations and cutting the firearms budget by as much as 73 percent.
The council’s major cut, on a 4-3 vote, was to the request to add a new police officer position. That action reduced the budget by about $76,000, but it won’t help relieve the staff on the department’s staff, which is already undermanned with one recent retirement and two new officers still training at the academy. The council also debated whether to fill the vacancy created by last month’s retirement of Corporal Rick Costello, but ultimately agreed, in one of the few unanimous votes of the evening, to retain that $66,000 position.
Mayor Kwasi Fraser and Council members Nedim Ogelman and Kelli Grim proposed the deepest cuts through a series of line-item reductions in the agency’s operations budget. They ranged from Fraser suggested cuts totaling $46,770 to Grim’s request for $110,700 in reductions.
Chief Cynthia A. McAlister told the council that her staff was working hard to keep shifts filled until the department can get back up to its authorized staffing levels, but more positions will be needed to sufficiently operate the department if it is to retain the focus on community policing that became its hallmark during the term of her predecessor, Chief Daryl Smith. McAlister said she took the job two years ago with the mission to continue that.
“Community policing is manpower intensive. Community policing is expensive,” she told the council. “We, right now, are getting by.”
Deputy Chief Joe Schroek was more direct. “We’re barely hanging on now,” the 34-year law enforcement veteran said. “I don’t know how much more I can take it to be quite honest.”
With the staffing shortage, Schroek and others have been filling the gaps on the street when other officers take time off, are called to court or take care of family business. “I’ve been covering shifts for the past three months,” he said.
Looking at the list of the council’s proposed budget cuts, he calculated the agency could lose 12 percent of its budget rather than get the 3 percent increase proposed by Lohr.
“Do you want to have a police department or not,” Schroek asked. “I think the community wants it.”
While none proposed eliminating the department, some council members have suggested that the county Sheriff’s Office could do more to help out in town, and Fraser asked whether the town should continue to have officers in the street around the clock every day.