Cass County Commissioners talk law enforcement funding, courthouse renovation

Published 12:39 pm Monday, March 25, 2024

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CASSOPOLIS – Law enforcement funding was again a big topic at the Cass County Commissioners’ Committee of the Whole meeting last week. Commissioners also heard an update about the historic courthouse renovation project.

Commissioners forwarded recommendations to approve a number of other items to the board’s April business meeting. Those include expanding the size of the county planning commission from nine to 11, support for a statewide ballot initiative to bring back local control of renewable energy projects and fiscal year 2024 budget amendments.

Related to law enforcement, the county board plans to approve ballot language for the drug enforcement taskforce millage renewal and a new contract with the Fraternal Order of Police at the April business meeting. The contract is expected to give deputies a 10 percent pay raise and a promise to look into a longevity bonus to be determined.

Sheriff Richard Behnke pointed out that the timeline is short to get the renewal on the August ballot with ballot language having to be turned in by May 14. With few, if any, language changes needed to the renewal proposal, commissioners said they would vote to place it on the ballot at their next business meeting in April.

While there appears to be a consensus for placing the drug enforcement taskforce millage renewal on the August ballot, the debate continues on what to do to get funding to hire new sheriff’s deputies and assistant prosecutors. The county board created a committee last month to look at what can be done and that committee has met twice so far.

Debate on what the committee should be doing and who should be on it came from two citizens as well as commissioners and County Administrator Matthew Newton. Committee members had talked earlier last week of having a committee with similar membership to be an advisory committee for the drug enforcement taskforce.

Roger Boyer and Lynn Schantz spoke during public comments to question why they were put on the committee at the first meeting and taken off it at the second meeting. Both said they felt there should be more transparency in county government.

“We thought we were going to be approved to be part of committee but apparently some commissioners feel that to have two citizens have official input into committee decisions was setting a dangerous precedent,” Boyer said.

As for the purpose of that committee and a yet to be named advisory committee, commissioners ended up agreeing to first ask Newton, Behnke and Prosecutor Victor Fitz to meet and come up with a plan on how to get funding for both the sheriff’s department and the prosecutor’s office.

“I have expressed concern about setting up an advisory committee,” Newton said. “I don’t think setting up the advisory committee before we decide how to use the money is right. It’s incumbent on the county to decide how to appropriate funds for better use.”

He pointed out that the world has changed since the millage was first approved 20 years ago.

“Marijuana was a big problem back then and now it’s sold legally down the street,” he said. “Is there a way to look at this to evolve it that makes sense? … I don’t know if having 12 people in a room to figure this out is necessarily the way to do it.”

Relative to the historic courthouse renovation project, Newton gave a presentation that covered some of the history as well as the work currently underway. He noted that the annex was built and some modernization done in 1977 and the courts moved out in 2003. Sporadic efforts were made since 2003 to study how to restore the building.

The current effort began in 2022 when county commissioners agreed on the plan and construction began last year. Funding for the $9.6 million project is coming primarily from American Rescue Plan Act funds with 16 percent of the costs covered by a USDA grant, he said.

“Work has picked up significantly this spring and is moving along at a very good pace now,” Newton said. “When everything is done, the courthouse will house new chambers for the county board and new offices for county departments. We will also have a community chapel which will be a dedicated space to do weddings.”

“A lot of great things that have happened the last couple of months,” he added. “A lot of work is taking place, the central staircase is actually built, a lot of interior framing is done and the steel supports are in for the new openings … It’s amazing how much work has happened.”

He said one of the main goals of the project is to make the building more accessible and inviting to the public.

“When you come into the building now, one of the things you have to do is go through a ton of doors to get to the people you want to talk to,” he said. “People are going to see public facing window right in the corridor that will make it less confusing.”

Newton said the public can see the progress of the work being done on the website where updates and photos are posted every other week. People should go to the historic courthouse section under the government tab on the website.