Indian Trail, Sheriff clash over contract

Council members say they are ready to form a police force
Feb. 15, 2013 @ 07:15 AM

Indian Trail will start its own police department if the town council and Union County Sheriff's Office cannot reach a contract compromise. That vote could come as soon as Saturday at a special called town meeting.

The town wants more control over contract deputies and wants to keep Sheriff's Office equipment at the end of the contract. Sheriff Eddie Cathey seems unwilling to give on either issue. (Read his full response on Page A5.)

For about $1.5 million, 22 deputies patrol Indian Trail, provide security for meetings, enforce certain ordinances, investigate crimes, respond and investigate vehicle collisions and answer any other applicable calls for service.

Town officials delivered their terms for contract renewal to the sheriff on Tuesday evening. It outlined the requests of the town council for continued service and  put into writing much of what deputies already provide. It also asserts the town has a right to keep Sheriff's Office equipment and vehicles if the contract is terminated early.

Other demands include a dedicated 911 and emergency communications channel for the town, town input of which ordinances deputies enforce, lowering town cost for fully amortized equipment used, creates a replace-or-refund system for town-assigned deputies who are absent for more than three days and other town requests.

Cathey responded by email. He indicated that little of what is written into the draft contract was brought up by Town Manager Joe Fivas during an earlier meeting. Most requests are already performed by the UCSO, but additional service needs significant discussion between the town and sheriff to implement. Cathey states he was not consulted on the feasibility of most things requested in the draft.

"I thought when you were in my office for about 2 hours we discussed what I thought were all of the concerns that you and the council had and you understood my position as the Sheriff," Cathey wrote. "When you left I felt we had a positive meeting and you left stating you had a lot of work to do. When I received your attempt at a contract effort, I realized that the meeting was a waste of time for both of us. "

The Sheriff's Office is mentioned once throughout the contract, Cathey wrote. The language refers to what services the county will provide the town, but Union County has no administrative power over the sheriff's office.

Tuesday, several members of the public spoke to the council about the UCSO contract, including former mayor John Quinn, who suggested the town council was manufacturing an impasse that necessitated creation of a municipal police department.

During closing comments at Tuesday's meeting, Indian Trail council members said they want to keep the service contract with the UCSO. They voted down discussing a law enforcement assessment study suggested by David Waddell early in the meeting.

"I want to see this work out," Robert Allen said. "They are the finest officers on the planet."

Waddell said town officials have talked about performing a needs assessment for years, but never moved forward.

"It's become apparent to me that we might be painting ourselves into a corner because the sheriff has told us that he's not going to change the contract." Waddell said. "And here we are negotiating after we finding out that we're not going to be rewriting the contract with the sheriff."

Council member Darlene Luther dismissed comments that the town's requests were unreasonable

When the first contract was written, Indian Trail's population was about 2,000 people, Luther said.

"In any contract, you kind of spell out expectations on each side and you have clarity. That's just what you should expect from any business, any government, any entity whatsoever, to have a well thought-out and agreed upon contract that obligates each side and gives clarity," Luther said.   

Luther used the Sheriff's Office coverage of Lake Park, a community of 3,000 people and less than one square mile, where deputies enforce village ordinances as an example of service levels the UCSO allows other towns. Luther said there is nothing in the contract between the village and the UCSO to enforce those ordinances. She said the sheriff should do the same for Indian Trail, a town of 36,000 and 24 square miles that she later described as the biggest municipality in the "whole probably outside Charlotte, east, south and all the way around."

She said contract negotiations were the government's duty, not some ploy to begin a town police department.

But Quinn and Waddell are not the only ones with that opinion.

"Yes, I think they're doing this so they can turn around a start their own police department," Cathey said.

Cathey said he feels the town is drawing the line at unreasonable demands that the 22 deputies assigned to the town cannot perform. Had town officials approached him asking if their requests were possible, perhaps a compromise could be reached, he said.

"We already do so many of those things. We already enforce the ordinances they tell us to. We don't have an issue with it," Cathey said. "But that's just the ordinances they've given us the authority to enforce. We can enforce any ordinance when the town has given us the authority to enforce. We've asked to enforce more, but the town manager has never brought it before the council."

Indian Trail has a juvenile curfew ordinance that deputies already enforce. But enforcement of all ordinances would be difficult to impossible, Cathey said.

"We don't have the manpower to do all the things they want us to do," he said. "What if they pass an ordinance that bans all guns in the town limits? We can't enforce that. If they want deputies to go out and check if a dog has pooped in a neighbor's yard, are we going to enforce that? If they say no baggy pants in town, are we going to enforce it?"

Council response

All voting members of the Indian Trail Town Council were contacted for comment on Cathey's email, but only David Cohn, David Waddell and Christopher King replied.

Waddell stated his opposition to a police department and the town's contract negotiations during Tuesday's meeting. He suggested that his fellow council members will ultimately make the decision.

"The outcome of this situation we have found ourselves in will be determined by whether councilmen Cohn and King keep their promise to the people and renew the contract with UCSO for law enforcement services," Waddell said.

"I think the sheriff, who I have a lot of respect for, has put the town in an awkward position by informing the media about this," Cohn said.

He prefers renewing the contract with UCSO, but Cohn said it will depend on whether the town and sheriff can compromise on the terms.

"I hope there is a contract. I hope we do reach and agreement. I'm scared that might not happen now," he said. "I'd like to see compromise on this, to sit down and work out a deal. But if the sheriff's office says it's my way or the highway, I don't think there will be a new contract."

While he discounts sabotage by council members, Cohn said a police department might be the ultimate result. Cohn said he does not favor a police department over UCSO deputies, but the council might see it as its only option.

"I think we're all a little surprised and disappointed that it happened this way," Cohn said.

King said was not pleased with the sheriff's email but that he spoke with Cathey about the draft contract, the email and compromise.

"He made a few comments (in the email) that I don't agree with at all," King said. "He said that we as a council had forsaken the safety of the town, forsaken the will of the people and will bring about an unnecessary tax increase. I found it offensive."

He and Cathey spoke about the town's request to keep equipent. King said he does not agree that Indian Trail has no claim to vehicles and other equipment once it is decommissioned.

"That has been a contention with certain council members for quite a while," King said. "I question Sheriff Cathey's statement that the annual cost to the town is the bottom line cost. The town is paying a lot for the equipment as well."

The contract requires Indian Trail to pay 90 percent of the actual cost to employ and outfit a deputy for service within the town limits. But the contract states that payment is for law enforcement service. Nowhere does it state that the town is paying for the vehicles and equipment.

Yet, town officials insist that their contract payments include a reimbursement for the county's equipment purchase.

"Are they literally paying for it? It depends on who you ask, really," King said.

He likened it more as a guarantee of a return on the town's investment.

"The last thing in the world I want to do is start a police department. We're already starting to build parks and roads, we don't need to fold a police department in with that," King said. "But I'll will if I have to."

But can the town put together a police department before July?

"Absolutely," King said.

"... we will be providing the same number of officers patrolling Indian Trail as there are now. And there will be no tax increase to do it," King said.    

Dealbreakers

Ownership of vehicles seems to be the sticking point. King said the council is willing to drop requirements for keeping deputy vehicles once they are decommissioned. But he said the council will likely insist on a provision to keep all vehicles in active service if either party terminates the contract.

"That's so if something happens and there's a disagreement with a future sheriff, we're not starting from scratch with no equipment," King said. "We're making a pretty big investment in this contract. If something happens in the future, I don't want the town to be left with nothing."

The decision to create a police force depends on what happens in the next few days.

"If something doesn't happen between now and the meeting Saturday, that's probably the direction we'll have to go in," King said. "We don't have any choice."

The Indian Trail Town Council meets at 4 p.m. Saturday in the civic building.