After decades with their own force and three years after a national consultant said the tiny northwest Valley town couldn't afford to maintain a Police Department, town leaders said it needs to bow to the inevitable.
Tonight, the Town Council will vote on whether to immediately turn control of public safety over to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
Youngtown Mayor Mike LeVault said it is a move to save money for a town that is slowly going broke.
The dismantling of the department and the layoffs of the officers are unlikely to happen quietly. Some residents are pulling together protests for tonight's council meeting.
Former Youngtown Mayor Bryan Hackbarth said the town could look elsewhere for cuts -- public works, courts and council members' salaries -- and continue dipping into savings to sustain the department.
Hackbarth said it makes little sense to eliminate a department that has been around as long as the town was established in 1960 and replace it with sheriff's patrols.
Property tax rejected
Voters rejected a primary property tax in 2010 that could have raised $522,726 for the department and other services. After its defeat, town officials cut positions for four police officers, a lieutenant and a public-works technician.
Former Chief Terry McDonald, who started work as an El Mirage police lieutentant Monday, said he put the Town Council on notice in August that he could no longer maintain the industry standard of police protection with seven officers.
McDonald said crimes jumped from about 100 in 2010 to about 250 in the first eight months of 2011. Officers are being overworked in an attempt to cover all shifts and are even forgoing vacations, he said.
McDonald said he is proud of the way his officers persevered to keep residents safe after the staff cuts in 2010, saying he has never seen a group of officers work harder in his 36-year career in law enforcement.
The town conducted a survey, published in September, in which it said Youngtown would go broke within three years if officials didn't drastically cut services or find new revenue.
Respondents expressed a desire to keep the Police Department but an unwillingness to pay the necessary costs, town leaders said. The results said only 18 percent of respondents were "very likely" to support a property tax. Twenty-two percent said they were neutral on a property tax.
"Of course, there is nothing free," LeVault said. "Everything is going to be paid for by someone."
The council will vote on a $661,000 contract with the Sheriff's Office on June 30, the end of the fiscal year. If the measure is approved, as officials expect, the town will pay the Sheriff's Office $911,000 for each fiscal year through 2014-15.
"I don't think there will be an issue," Town Manager Lloyce Robinson said of the upcoming vote. "But I never know. I would not speak for the council."
Robinson said it's unclear what date the Sheriff's Office would take over. She said she is asking the council to approve a four-week severance package for the town's officers and other police personnel who would be laid off.
One issue about the sheriff's taking over is whether the quality of law enforcement in the town will improve or deterioriate.
According to an internal investigation released in May, more than 50 El Mirage sex-crime cases, most involving young children, were not properly investigated when the Sheriff's Office oversaw the city from 2006 to 2007. When a new police force took over for the Sheriff's Office in 2007, its leaders expressed shock to find so many investigations often ended after an initial report.
Residents had also complained of slow response times and hundreds of calls to the Sheriff's Office that went unanswered or dropped.
"From that standpoint, we were very disappointed," El Mirage Mayor Lana Mook told Youngtown council members at a September town hall. Mook urged Youngtown officials to reconsider another property-tax referendum to save their police force.
Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan said the Sheriff's Office, after an investigation by Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, has corrected the issues that led to the problems in El Mirage. The investigation blamed the problems in El Mirage and elsewhere on poor oversight and former Chief Deputy David Hendershott's desire to protect a key investigator from bad publicity.
"We've since (upgraded) our computer database to keep track of these sex-crime cases, and we've also got a mechanism in place and already set in motion for a smooth and orderly transition of the active criminal cases that are open in Youngtown," Sheridan said.
LeVault said he doesn't think Youngtown will experience the same troubles as El Mirage.
"When we brought that up (to sheriff's officials), we were assured that the reasons for those shortcomings had been rectified."
Robinson said municipal managers she has spoken to in Gila Bend, Litchfield Park, Carefree and Guadalupe who contracted with the Sheriff's Office have had glowing reviews of the service their residents receive.