Contract negotiations continue between Cass County, sheriff’s department

Published 10:23 am Monday, February 5, 2024

CASSOPOLIS — Cass County Commissioners are making contract negotiations with the Cass County Sheriff’s Department’s deputies/detective labor union a priority this month.

Discussion of the status of the negotiations to re-open the wage and retirement contribution parts of the contract took up the bulk of last week’s county board meeting. Commissioners ended up approving a motion to establish a county negotiating team for the upcoming talks which commissioners want to happen as soon as possible.

The board action came after commissioners heard comments from County Administrator Matthew Newton, Cass County Sheriff Richard Behnke and union representatives. The full contract with the Fraternal Order of Police sheriff’s department labor union runs through Dec. 31, 2025 and negotiations on the full contract are expected to start next year.

The county’s negotiating team will be Newton, Behnke, Finance Director Jennifer Rentfrow and County Board Chairman Jeremiah Jones.

Jones said it’s important to not move forward until there are definite answers.

“We’re all in favor of helping our law enforcement, don’t get us wrong,” he said. “But we have long lasting things here that we want to make sure we do it right. Apparently the county didn’t do it right previously and we want to do it right this time.”

Behnke noted that the sheriff’s office currently has 10 vacancies and there are other vacancies associated with the department’s contracts with local townships.

“We’re not that far away from not having 24 hour coverage,” he said. “This is a very important issue.”

He said he was involved in the contract negotiations three years ago with union representatives and then County Administrator Jeff Carmen. He said he warned everyone then he had concerns about the retirement/pension language in the contract such as what would trigger defined benefit plans to convert to defined contribution plans.

Union representatives told commissioners that a number of sheriff’s deputies have left the department in recent years and taken their years of experience with them. They said that other departments including those for the city of Dowagiac and the Pokagon Band offer higher wages and better benefits.

Also last week, Newton gave a progress report on the Historic Courthouse renovation work.

“Over the past month, we’ve seen construction really pick up pace and a lot of work is now underway,” he said. “… We had discussed that we’d likely see a big ramp-up of construction activities as we got into the new year and we have certainly seen that occur.”

“We are now regularly seeing crews of 20-25 workers in the space working on various aspects of the renovation,” he added. “It’s amazing seeing the work in progress and I know we are all excited to see the work complete later this year.”

In other action at last week’s meeting, commissioners approved an application to the state’s CDBG Housing Improving Local Livability (CHILL) grant program. County Treasurer Hope Anderson said the Cass County Land Bank Authority has met the criteria to submit a grant application for $500,000 to fund housing programs.

The CHILL grant funds can be used for two purposes, Anderson said, for homeowner rehabilitation to preserve affordable housing and for demolition/reconstruction/resale to remove blighted properties and refill them with single family housing for resale to eligible buyers.

Commissioners also signed a contract with McKenna & Associates to create a new master plan update for the county. The cost will be $50,000 and will be spread over two fiscal years. The last update was done in 2014. The county will also be providing services to three townships and a village as they update their master plans.

The contract was recommended by the Cass County Planning Commission after another vendor the county had contracted with backed out. McKenna is expected to meet with the planning commission and get input from community leaders and community members in developing the plan update over the next year.