SAGINAW, MI — The phrase "reinvent the wheel" was used more than once Wednesday, Jan. 6, as Saginaw city and county leaders met briefly with officials from Pontiac to discuss police contracting.
Pontiac Mayor Leon Jukowski and Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe both played vital roles in the 2011 transition from a city police department to a contracted policing system. Both were guests at the Saginaw County Board of Commissioners' Courts and Public Safety Committee meeting Wednesday.
Jukowski said it was a difficult undertaking and initially an unpopular decision by the city's emergency manager.
"This was a tremendously difficult, politically explosive decision in the city of Pontiac," he said. "There were a lot of people that were against it."
Because state law let the emergency manager to an end-run around elected leaders, Jukowski said some in the community took issue with the change.
"From a lot of peoples' viewpoints, this was a shotgun wedding," he said.
Both the Pontiac mayor and McCabe said now, about 18 months after the switch, public opinion has changed greatly.
"This is probably the most universally popular I've ever seen city government do in Pontiac," he said.
McCabe said of few things helped change public perception. He said increasing the police force from 50 at the time of the conversion to the current level of 74 was part of it.
Another major improvement, McCabe said, was in response time to citizen complaints. The Pontiac Police Department did not respond to any property crimes of traffic crashes and the average response time was 76 minutes, he said.
After the switch, the average police response time in Pontiac is nine minutes and 45 seconds for secondary response calls and less than six minutes for high-priority calls, according to McCabe. And police respond to all calls, from serious felonies to people locked out of their cars.
Both McCabe and Jukowski said getting the support of the Pontiac police officers and presenting the case clearly to the public was an important part of the process.
"Get the unions involved," Jukowski advised. "It's going to be much easier if this is something that is negotiated."
McCabe explained Oakland County's history of contract law enforcement, which stretches back to 1952. That, and other factors, set Oakland County apart from Saginaw County despite many parallels between Pontiac and Saginaw.
Oakland County hired all 50 city officers, plus 13 that had been laid off, at higher salaries than they had been earning from the city police department, McCabe said. The about $2 million in savings, he said, were realized through the efficiency realized by consolidation and because benefits offered county deputies are not as lucrative and, therefore, not as expensive as what the city had provided in the past.
The undersheriff said he was happy to answer questions, but did not intend to advise city or county leaders in Saginaw on what to do in this situation.
"I'm not here to tell you what you should do or what you shouldn't do," McCabe said.
In addition to committee members, those attending Wednesday's meeting included additional county commissioners, Saginaw Mayor Greg Branch, five city council members, city police officers and county sheriff deputies.
The county committee decided Wednesday to again take no action, and to place the issue back on its March agenda.
Chairwoman Cheryl Hadsall said she wanted to hear a recommendation from Saginaw Sheriff William Federspiel after he receives a contract from the city.
Saginaw City Manager Darnell Earley announced Wednesday that the city will put contract language in Federspiel's hands sometime "early next week."
The sheriff said he has yet to decide whether or not it would be appropriate to begin negotiations with the city. If he does, Federspiel said he will likely be looking for more than the 80 sworn officers that city administration has said would be all Saginaw could afford.