City would lose Summers in sheriff's office merger

There was no consensus, but lots of discussion Monday night in Cornelius as about 50 people crammed into City Hall to voice their views on a possible merger between the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Cornelius Police Department — and to hear what Sheriff Pat Garrett thinks about the idea.

City Manager Rob Drake opened the meeting by saying his role has been to look at ways to maintain and improve services for the city’s 10,000 residents without busting the city budget.

“One of the areas I looked at was the police department,” Drake said. “Our goal tonight is for the mayor and council to listen.”

Garrett, for his part, said he was simply on hand to provide information for the council and to listen to public comments.

Benefits to the merger, Garrett said, include better response to 911 calls and improved staffing levels. He added that, should the county take over policing services, relationships with Centro Cultural and the Chamber of Commerce would continue, as would the Community Oriented Policing Citizens Advisory Board (COPCAB).

But some things would change, including the person at the top of the police department. While originally it was thought that Cornelius Police Chief Ken Summers would stay on if the sheriff’s office takes over services, Garrett said he is “uncomfortable” having someone who is not a county employee in the chain of command.

City Councilor Dave Schamp said that given the turmoil in police leadership that preceded Summers’ arrival, it could be hard to find someone from the county who fits in as well.

“It sounds simple, but somehow I feel that’s not the case,” said Schamp.

Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin said he was still concerned that a shift to county oversight of policing could lead to a loss of local control and an extra cost of up to $100,000.

Garrett replied that “more effectiveness comes with a higher cost.”

Members of the audience were divided on the matter. Of those who spoke, five were in favor of staying with the current police department and four were in favor of merging with the sheriff’s office.

“I’m a bit of a flip-flopper,” said Jesse Rojo, a COPCAB member. “As I learned more about it I’ve been seeing more of a loss of control than I thought it would be.”

Another COPCAB member, Cathy Smalls, said the police department, under Summers’ leadership, has just come through a difficult transition.

“It’s so close to being a great police department,” she said. “I don’t want to see that go to waste.”

COPCAB member Marlene Bartels said she’s worried the city hasn’t given Summers enough time to solidify the positive changes he has implemented.

Residents supporting the merger said their questions about cost and services were answered during Garrett’s presentation.

“I would welcome the sheriff’s office into this town full-heartedly,” said Greg Harper, a Cornelius citizen.

Zack Gallinger-Long, another COPCAB member, said “There’s a saying that ‘If it doesn’t need fixing, don’t fix it.’ But if it can be improved, I think we should do it.”

Many citizens asked where the extra $100,000 was going to come from.

“There are ways to find money, but there would be expenses,” said Drake. “[A] higher level of service is going to be more expensive whether we go with the sheriff’s office or not.”

Summers, for his part, remained upbeat about ongoing discussions that could affect his employment.

“It’s all positive,” he said after the meeting. “A year from now the citizens will be getting much better service no matter what. It’s just about how they want that service.”

Further comments can be mailed to the city, 1355 N. Barlow St., before the Sept. 3 meeting where the proposal will be reviewed again. The council will vote on the matter Sept. 16.

“Go home and talk to your neighbors and your kids,” said Rojo. “Email your opinions to your councilors. This will affect not just you, but generations.”

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