Cass County discusses potential law enforcement millage

Published 5:00 am Saturday, February 17, 2024

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CASSOPOLIS — Cass County Commissioners are taking the first steps toward putting a law enforcement millage on the August ballot. If approved by voters, the millage would provide funding for both the Cass County Prosecutor’s Office and the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.

The county board heard Thursday from Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz on the needs of his office after hearing about the sheriff’s department needs from Sheriff Richard Behnke earlier this month. At the end of Fitz’s presentation, commissioners decided to form a committee to pursue a potential new millage.

It was unclear Thursday what the new millage proposal would look like, although Fitz said it could provide funding for both the sheriff’s department and his office. He said he’d like to see the proposal on the August ballot which would mean that the county board would have to approve the ballot language by May 14.

County Administrator Matthew Newton said after the meeting that the committee formed to look at a new law enforcement millage would also review what to do about the existing half-mill drug enforcement millage which is up for renewal this year.

Fitz told commissioners that the challenges the sheriff’s department and prosecutor’s office are facing are also being felt by other county departments.

“It’s very much on the radar of everybody,” he said. “We want to attract and retain high quality staff, provide the best services possible and explore creative and flexible compensation packages.”

He reported that his office is facing the same urgent staffing issues as others are around the nation with prosecutors leaving their job, a situation that has repercussions for justice.

“Government is instituted for the equal benefit, security and protection of society,” he said.

“The police and the prosecutor provide protection and security,” he added. “You heard from the sheriff that he has very real concerns about staffing. We have similar problems in the prosecutor’s office. For much of the last two years we have been down 40 percent of our assistant prosecuting attorney staff.”

He noted that the situation facing prosecutor’s offices around the state is unprecedented.

“For 35 of my 41 years in practice, there were maybe three, four or five offices looking for staff,” he said. “Now 44 out of 83 counties are looking for assistant prosecuting attorneys and it’s probably more than that.”

He blamed the situation on declining law school enrollment, the defund the police movement and wages and salaries not being competitive.

“This is urgent, the crisis is just around the corner, it’s right next door,” he said. “St. Joseph County (Michigan) is down to one assistant prosecutor, three are gone and no one is applying. We need to get ahead of this sharp and dangerous curve.”

Fitz said Cass County is competing with Berrien, Van Buren, Allegan, Kalamazoo and St. Joseph Counties and that Cass County has one of the lowest salary ranges.

“Cass County is at rock bottom when it comes to compensation and our indigent defense attorneys sometimes make double or triple what we offer,” he said.

Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mary Foster also gave her perspective. She said all the assistant prosecutors who were there when she started in Cass a year and a half ago are gone and there’s now only one other attorney with experience.

“We’re being outmanned,” she said. “There are four public defenders working misdemeanor court and we have two. We also have more duties than the public defenders. We review all charging documents to decide if people will be charged and then we have to interview witnesses and prepare for trial. It’s not a great situation when the public defender has a better feel for the case than we do.”

Fitz then presented his ideas for a solution to the problem.

“It’s not all gloom and doom,” he said. “We want to get ahead of the curve, we don’t want to face a cataclysmic crisis like St. Joseph County. One solution is not to compare us to other broken models. The solution is finding a way to properly fund law enforcement.”

He offered the example of Lapeer County which had strong community support for law enforcement but still weren’t able to fully staff their sheriff’s department and prosecutor’s office.

“They came up with a bold mindset to give the best law enforcement in the region and to do that they needed to provide the best wages in the region,” he said.

They easily passed a millage that provided funding for both departments, he said.

“They no longer have staffing issues, they’re getting top grade personnel and are giving citizens what they want,” he said. “There was also no negative impact on the county general fund, it took the two biggest gobblers out of that.”

In a related move, Fitz proposed and commissioners agreed to set up a committee to have a class compensation study done for county employees. He said he’d like to see the compensation study completed by Nov. 1.

He and Cass County Chief Judge Carol Montavon Bealor said flexibility is a key component of compensation studies. Bealor said today’s workforce is different than the past with some younger people wanting a higher salary and caring less about retirement and other benefits.

Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting also featured reports on other topics such as election inspectors, county board bylaws and procedures, mileage reimbursement rates, a change in medical examiner personnel and the opioid settlement funding plan.

The county board will next meet March 7 for their regular meeting and then hold a Committee of the Whole meting on March 21.