By Kevin Boneske
HOBART – An overflow crowd at the village hall Sept. 7 went away happy after the Hobart Village Board voted 3-2 to continue its combined police department with the Town of Lawrence.
The audience broke out in cheers and applause when Village President Rich Heidel and trustees Tim Carpenter and David Dillenburg voted to continue the Hobart/Lawrence Police Department, rather than explore the possibility of contracting with the Brown County Sheriff’s Office for police services.
Trustee Ed Kazik, who suggested holding a referendum on the matter next April, and Trustee Debbie Schumacher, who suggested an independent committee study the issue, were opposed.
Earlier this year, Kazik and Schumacher requested exploring the possibility of the sheriff’s office providing the village police services, with the existing officers offered the opportunity to join the sheriff’s office.
Kazik said the Hobart/Lawrence officers haven’t done anything wrong, while contracting with the sheriff’s office would provide “a lot more tools in our toolbox they can use.”
“We’d be paying the same price,” he said. “If we go about (with a) stand-alone (police department), we’re going to paying hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars (more). We’re going to build a new police station… (Deciding the issue) should go to the taxpayers, who are going to pay the increase and make this decision, and not just five people on a board.”
Schumacher said the village faces rising costs, and she wanted to find out whether contracting with the sheriff’s office instead of having a police department might be a better financial decision, with the county now contracting for police services with Howard, Suamico, Bellevue, Allouez and Denmark.
“Each of those areas, each of those municipalities, have their own officers, and those officers act like Suamico officers, Bellevue officers,” she said. “They stay in their area, for the most part, and they do all the same things that officers from a stand-alone (police department) do.”
The issue consumed much of the Village Board’s regularly scheduled meetings since Sheriff Todd Delain presented a proposal to the board Aug. 3.
With the total annual budget of the Hobart/Lawrence Police Department around $1.5 million this year, Delain said the estimated amount for the sheriff’s office to provide police services for 2022 would be about the same.
Except for the Hobart/Lawrence police chief, who would not be retained with the sheriff’s office handling administrative duties, Delain said all the officers would be able to become sworn deputies of the sheriff’s office, with Hobart and Lawrence maintaining their identity and local direction through a partnership with the sheriff’s office.
In response to Delain’s presentation, Hobart/Lawrence police officers signed a letter stating they “do not support the proposal in any way, shape or form.”
“After listening to the (Aug. 3) presentation and asking Sheriff Delain specific questions, many concerns were highlighted and unanswered,” the letter said. “It was made clear our employment/careers are not guaranteed if the absorption is approved.”
Opponents to the proposal came out in full force at the board’s Aug. 17 meeting, with police officers and residents of the two municipalities on hand to speak.
They were back at the village hall this week with some signs stating “Keep our Hobart-Lawrence Police Department.”
The board agreed with Heidel to schedule a possible vote on the proposal after Village Administrator Aaron Kramer urged the board to make a decision and not let the issue linger on, given how the proposal has negatively affected morale in the police department.
Heidel said a referendum wouldn’t be necessary, because he has heard from residents on their support for continuing to fund a combined police department, and he received a round of applause when he called for resolving the matter with a vote.
“I have heard the public tell us as a board that we have no compunction if you as a board determine that we do need to spend some more tax money on a police station or compensation or staff increases,” he said. “That’s what growing does, and that’s what we’ve got on all our entry signs. ‘Greatness is Growing.’ Well, let’s man-up and own it.”
Dillenburg said having a combined police department is a “good work in progress.”
“There’s no wrong reason why we did this,” he said. “I mean, there isn’t like the police department’s not doing their job. It isn’t like they did something wrong.”
Prior to casting the deciding vote, Carpenter said the combined police department with Lawrence has worked well.
“The relationship has allowed both communities to have elite police coverage at a very reasonable cost,” he said. “My hope is we continue that wonderful relationship with our neighbors to the south, as it has proven the municipalities can work together to share services.”
Under the combined police department, Lawrence pays for half of the capital expenses and a third of the operational expenses.
Kramer provided the board with cost estimates for building a new police station.
Based on figures provided by the village’s financial advisor, Brian Della of PMA, Kramer said a new police station at a yet-to-be-determined location for an estimated cost of $5 million would likely be a realistic project in 2027 with half the cost paid by Lawrence.
With plans also in the works to break ground next year on a new fire station, which is estimated to cost $3 million, Kramer said the village could afford both projects placed on 20-year bonds.
“If anyone is saying the police station is going to bankrupt the village, I can look you in the eye tonight and say, ‘No, it’s not going to bankrupt the village,’” he said. “There will be two rough years – rough being in the years (2028 and 2029) – when we have to pay interest on the police bonds on top of our existing debt. We calculate that will be about $75,000 (in) each of those two years.”