Jun. 22—ELGIN — Residents of Elgin and the surrounding area packed themselves into city hall Tuesday, June 21 — filling every seat and overflowing to standing room — for a rowdy city council special session.
After listening to concerned citizens, Elgin City Council and Mayor Risa Hallgarth unanimously voted to move forward with a new contract with the Union County Sheriff's Office.
"Please come to council meetings, not just when there are big decisions, but all the time. We are here for you," Councilor Teresa Hylton-Shaffer said.
After bringing the session to order, Hallgarth outlined the agenda for the meeting. First the mayor shared the unfortunate news that City Administrator Brock Eckstein resigned due to illness. Eckstein will work as much as possible with whoever fills the position, but he is unable to continue in a day-to-day capacity, she said.
Tyler Crook from the public works department has been asked to temporarily fill in the position. However, he has requested the position be opened to the public for two weeks. Elgin's city administrator is an elected position. The individual who the council appoints to the role will fill the remaining time left on Eckstein's term, which is up at the end of the year.
Hallgarth then announced the council would be making a decision on how to move forward with the issue of law enforcement: signing a new contract with the Union County Sheriff's Office or creating its own police department.
Hylton-Shaffer brought forward the motion to keep the sheriff's contract, which Councilor Rocky Burgess seconded. The meeting was then opened for public comments.
Residents of Elgin had strong opinions. One of the primary points of public emphasis was about the cost of a new police department. According to the Elgin City Council, the first year of operation for a new police department was estimated at $380,000 and the cost moving forward would vary.
"With the economy the way it is, how can we afford it? What about the city liability if something happened and someone were to sue the city?" asked one resident and business owner.
Other residents pointed out how the cost of living and expenses were going to continue to increase over the years, meaning the price of maintaining the police department would increase.
Hylton-Shaffer and Burgess seconded the sentiment. Hylton-Shaffer said she was concerned with ensuring the city does not go bankrupt from needing to support a police department.
"Great people have applied for the Elgin Police Department, but it's a cost thing," Burgess said.
In comparison, the contract Sheriff Cody Bowen offered to the city opened at just more than $315,000 for the first year. Additionally, it had pricing laid out and guaranteed for six years.
Bowen explained how he recalculated the cost to lower the price for Elgin in the new contract. Previously the cost was calculated at the price of the highest paid deputies on the force. However, Bowen changed the pricing model to be based on lower tiers of pay.
"I'm paying those guys regardless of if they are patrolling in Elgin or back in the office in La Grande," the sheriff said. "So I'm finding ways to absorb that cost in my budget and not passing that onto you."
Bowen was transparent about wanting a six-year contract to protect and provide job security for his deputies.
The council seemed torn on the contract. Councilor Steve Gresham was worried about the length of time Elgin would be locked into the contract and reminded everyone the sheriff also was an elected position. Burgess countered by saying the length of the contract worked in their favor for that very reason — a new sheriff would not be able to come in and change the pricing.
Residents also were concerned with how long it would take to get a new police department up and running. The current contract with the sheriff's office ends July 1, which would have left Elgin without coverage until it hired and trained a new police force.
"That is insane. And with gas prices being the way it is, we're on the brink of civil unrest," said one resident.
The final concern was about personnel coverage and response times. Currently, the sheriff's office provides three deputies for Elgin. A new police department would start with a chief and one officer.
"We'd be going down to one officer, with more to do than one guy can do," one man in the crowd said.
Only one resident in attendance spoke in favor of creating an Elgin Police Department.
"How much protection do you have with the county?" he asked.
Once the public comment portion of the session ended, the council unanimously voted to move forward with the new contract to retain the services of the Union County Sheriff's Office.