Tuesday, November 29, 2016

TOP STORY >> Residents assured on Austin PD

Leader staff writer

It was standing-room only at Monday’s Austin City Council meeting, which was considering next year’s budget. But what brought the crowd to the meeting were the rumors about the possible disbanding of the police department, which The Leader has covered extensively in recent weeks.

With the recent firing of the police chief, the sheriff’s office insists it is not interested in taking over the city’s police department, although deputies will spend more time in Austin as they move their Cabot operations to Austin.

The budget vote was postponed until the regular December meeting. Alderman Matt Sheets said he wanted city employees to receive a 2 percent raise, and the other aldermen agreed.

The possible raise would be included in 2017’s estimated budget of about $1,437,500. Unlike most cities, Austin’s budget shrank from $1,580,200 or about $142,700, in part because of the one-time city hall expansion expenditures, Mayor Bernie Chamberlain said.

Next year’s budget also includes a new police car and fire truck.

The council also unanimously approved keeping the city’s millage at .0047 and approved $6,230 for the repair of a wastewater pump by Mid-State Electric of Jacksonville.

There were no absences and the next regular meeting has been scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 19.

Mark Miller of Austin may have described it best when he said the rumors swirling around the city created a “perfect storm” as he talked with others after the council meeting about closing the police department.

The rumors began spreading last month and were fueled by ill-informed TV news coverage and rampant social media speculations and postings.

Scott Rustein of the Cross Creek said, “A lot of the rumor mill was fueled by websites.”

The number of visitors at the November meeting had more than doubled over the number that attended October’s meeting, and the council chamber was basically standing room only by the time the mayor called the meeting to order at 7 p.m.

After the city’s business was concluded, Chamberlain opened the floor to discussion and she and council members fielded questions from the audience that in large part reflected the community’s concerns about the Austin Police Department.

Many attendees remained concerned about the viability of the city’s 13-man police department, but Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley was there to dispel the notion that his agency was taking over police duties in Austin.

The mayor fired Police Chief Jim Kulesa on Nov. 18, and during last month’s council meeting she did not acknowledge that she had explored with the sheriff any economic advantages to using county law enforcement instead of operating a municipal police department. Those issues agravated some in the audince.

But Alderman Sheets said at last month’s meeting that the department was not in jeopardy and at Monday night’s meeting, he pointed out that the police department was included in the 2017 budget.

According to City Attorney Greg Crumpton, Chamberlain cannot further address the issue of the police chief’s firing. On Nov. 18, the city issued a press release, stating, “The chief did not meet the expectations of the job duties…”

An officer quit about the same time, which also created a buzz, but in the same press release, Chamberlain said, “The safety and security of the citizens (are) of utmost importance and I assure you the police department is still intact and working to protect the people.”

After his firing, Kulesa claimed he was being pressured to set up speed traps and issue more traffic tickets, but the council noted that the police department issued only 13 citations last month.

“We are not here to close your department down,” Sheriff Staley said.

In addition to explaining the legal hoops the city and county would have to jump through before that could happen, he said the public may have confused the issue because of the plans to move the Lonoke County Sheriff’s North Office from Cabot to Austin.

Austin’s sister city is growing and that can complicate response time.

Cabot isn’t always pleased with deputies running their sirens and lights within the city limits.

Austin though is ready to make room for the deputies, providing them with desk space, bathroom privileges and Internet access, he said.

Chamberlain said, “We want them here.”

Staley said he hopes to make the move around Jan. 1.

Chamberlain sees the move as a win for the city, basically doubling their show of law enforcement personnel. Usually, there’s only one officer on patrol in Austin, although the city’s police and fire departments have a mutual-aid agreement with Ward.

Before adjourning the meeting, Alderman Sheets said he welcomed the visitors and hoped they would continue attending city council meetings.

Chamberlain also said she welcomed visitors.

After the meeting, residents agreed that perhaps some good will come from the rumors.

Already, various Austin neighborhoods are connecting, resident Rutstein said.

Another resident would like to see the crime watch groups take a more active role in the community. “We need to figure out how we can come together,” he said, with Rutstein adding, “We need to talk and share ideas.”

Resident Miller said the rumors took the city by storm, “It’s brought awareness of some our problems, but I’m more comfortable with what’s going on in the city now.”