Rarely do I find it necessary to openly share my opinion on much of anything (except when in certain company), especially given my profession. However, given my history with the Jackson Police Department (JPD) – my father having served there for close to 20 years before leaving the force in 2001 – I think the income tax issue facing Jackson is one of the most important decisions facing that city in recent memory.

Call it nostalgia, but I remember the JPD of the 90s and into the new millennium, with a robust staff including numerous patrolmen, drug investigators, several sergeants, a captain (later changed to assistant chief), of course the chief (which would have been Ted Penix at that time), as well as an extensive auxiliary unit. Obviously, times have changed quite substantially, and unfortunately for Jackson, the changes in relation to the subject matter equate to less funding, less police officers and increased crime (especially with regard to drug abuse).

I’ve had quite a few discussions with Municipal Court Judge Mark Musick about the county’s woes with funding, jail space, the size of Jackson County’s respective police forces and so on, and anything further in the wrong direction with regard to combatting crime and recidivism would be quite detrimental to Jackson, and as a result, the rest of the county and its residents. 

The opioid epidemic that hit around 2007 in the area really sat the norm on its ear. An influx of offenders quickly overwhelmed the Jackson County Correctional Facility, which at the time of its construction, was thought to have more than enough space. What’s more, as time progressed and matters worsened with the local drug-abuse battle, finding space for the female offenders arrested in Jackson and the rest of the county was proving quite difficult. More and more of law enforcement budgets were being spent on overtime hours, travel expenses and other costs associated with transporting all offenders – but particularly females – to counties hours away at times, that is if any jail space at all can be found.

Fast forward to now, a JPD that has already experienced cutbacks in the form of retirements and attrition over the past few years, is still combatting the same issues, only during a pandemic. I’ve seen what a toll being in that line of work takes on a person every day and that was from a totally different time under very different circumstances. These are rough times in general, and I really don’t think anybody in this lovely city would want to see how much worse things would get without a police department.

Late Friday afternoon, Oct. 9, Mayor Randy Evans announced he was sending a total of 16 layoff notices to employees of JPD as well as the Street and Alley Department, both of which are paid via the General Fund. In his announcement he further said if the income tax measure were to pass, these notices would likely be rescinded. In discussing issues such as this, some people will always say that announcement is a “scare tactic.” The fact of the matter is this – all of these things are real. Of the 16 total layoff notices (12 to full-time employees and four to part-time employees), nine went to the JPD.   

People also tend to get hung up on finding someone to blame for why an income tax is necessary after not having one for all of these years. An important factor to bear in mind is the fact that for a decade-plus, the men and women put in charge of auditing the city from the State of Ohio, made allowances for the use of funding from utility rights-of-way in the General Fund, thus benefitting the large police department in, admittedly, a very roundabout way. The funding was basically justified by saying, as officers patrol and protect the city, that includes the utility poles, the electric substation, utility rights-of-way, and so on, so the money can benefit the department. 

Then, when the once-in-a-decade audit was redone, a difference in opinion on that matter resulted in the city no longer being permitted to utilize the funding in the same way. So, despite there being a large surplus of funds in the Electric Department and a deficit in the General Fund, the city lost the ability to, in a nutshell, spend its money as it saw fit. 

It’s likewise important to note that, though a lot of area municipalities do not have electric substations, most every city in Ohio (with the exception of Beaver Creek, which likewise has an income-tax measure on November ballots) does have an income tax, including the City of Wellston, which is currently one-percent. Wellston actually stands to lose money if Jackson voters implement their one-and-a-half percent income tax; however despite that fact, Mayor Charlie Hudson has spoken out in favor of his neighboring city to the south approving the ballot measure.

In recent years, the topic of an income tax for the City of Jackson has come up more than once, mainly in response to such a huge loss of funding opportunities, as the city’s electric substation is a multi-million-dollar venture. This time around, discussions for Jackson no longer tout the use of the possible revenue from that tax for much more than maintaining things as are, as well as some much-needed street, sidewalk and infrastructure improvements.

Specifically, Mayor Evans has said, should the tax pass, half of the revenue would go to the General Fund and the other half would go to various improvements. He has said adopting the income tax would provide enough funding to the JPD to maintain current staffing levels and has also mentioned the city’s aspiration to develop a long-term street paving program.

This is the key takeaway, chiefly with regard to what I just said: If this tax is not approved by the voters, the consequences for not only the JPD, but the city’s aging infrastructure, will be dire. Yes, council members would reserve the right to impose the tax, but it has been said in open session that this is not the legislative body’s desire. So, if these negative happenings transpire and, at some point down the road people see the need for the tax, things will only be in worse shape and it will only take longer to recover from that point.

Why willingly allow your city to fall behind and run the risk of falling into the dreaded category of Fiscal Emergency? Both Wellston and the Village of Coalton spent years under the thumb of the State Auditor’s Office, but did emerge successfully. I can assure you of this much, having covered the City of Wellston both going into and coming out of Fiscal Emergency, the State Auditor’s office will have no qualms in doing what is absolutely necessary to balance the budget. If that means completely doing away with the JPD, that’s what would be done. No remorse, nothing personal, just keeping the city’s finances solvent. 

Jackson residents: That does not need to happen to your city! You have the ability to right the ship now and avoid the inevitable truth of what is coming if this tax doesn’t pass. Is it fun to pay more taxes? No. Is it nice to know your city is being tended to correctly and in a financially sustainable fashion? I think so. Bear in mind the fact that these are people we’re talking about – people that spend their work days/nights protecting you and yours. One of these young men – Richie Kisor – has actually already endured such a layoff from his hometown when Wellston was going through a similar situation around a decade ago.

The natural progression of things would see people like Richie and Jeremy Witt continue on into leadership roles at the JPD, rebuilding and making things better for future generations of officers, while also providing for and making memories with their young families. If that appeals to your more human qualities, that’s because it should.

As of today (Thursday, Oct. 15), the JPD has 16 employees including Chief Allen Potter, Sgts. Brett Hinsch, Rob Masters, Steve Sprague and Zack Taylor, Patrolmen Steve Sickles, Robert Grimes, Richie Kisor, Jeremy Witt and Wes Kight, and dispatchers Robert Campbell, Steve Fisher, Aaron Riley, Chuck Bock and two part-time dispatchers. (Bock is able to serve as a dispatcher or officer.) Longtime JPD employees Steve Fisher and Robert Grimes have expressed plans to retire by Oct. 31 and Oct. 21, respectively, positions that would likely not be replaced. So, you do the math, 16 - 9 = 7, and then with the two upcoming retirements, that makes five. The JPD would be reduced to five employees if Mayor Evans’ recently announced layoffs come to fruition. According to Chief Potter, the department would then consist of himself, Sgt. Masters, Sgt. Taylor, Sgt. Sprague and dispatcher Campbell, leaving only four officers to cover the road 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Chief Potter was first hired in May 1996, and two years later in 1998, the JPD was staffed with a chief, assistant chief, five sergeants, eight patrolmen, a meter maid, four communications officers, four auxiliary units, two secretaries and a criminologist. Aside from the obvious negative consequences of the income-tax measure failing on Nov. 3, Chief Potter addressed a slew of pertinent topics with The Telegram recently, including the fact that criminals are paying close attention to the outcome of this election.

“If our community has the resources to address the issues, it makes people reluctant to create issues here,” he said Thursday morning from inside the JPD station. “People, especially the criminal element, will go where there’s the least resistance. I’ve considered a number of things with this income tax. One, it’s a slippery slope to tell people what resources we do and don’t have. I’m sure the people out there we deal with regularly, they know whether we have a drug investigator and whom he’s working with. They know that. A lot of your everyday citizens wouldn’t know that stuff.”

Overall, Chief Potter said the topic is one that he could speak to for hours on end, and one not easily condensed or defined.

“Public safety encompasses a lot,” he said. “A lot of people think all we do is arrest people and that’s not entirely the case. I definitely prefer compliance to enforcement. Me, in my position, it’s even a slippery slope for me to endorse a tax. But, people need to realize the totality of the circumstances, which is a term used in the criminal justice system. It’s hard to sit here and think of every possible scenario, you just know this is an obvious safety concern. That’s what I hope the people consider – what the future of this place may hold.”

In the law, the “totality of the circumstances test” refers to a method of analysis where decisions are based on all available information rather than clearly defined rules or standards.

As for how the department would operate with a staff of five (four officers), Chief Potter said all that could be done is to continue on as best as possible. However, he also issued a statement to the public about how service would likely be delivered in such a scenario.

“There’s a special kind of pride with being a Jackson Police Officer,” he said, pointing to an old schedule created by my father in 1996, which Potter had utilized as chief when staffing levels were similar. “If we’re down to four officers, we’ll continue to do the best we can with what we have. But, I think people are going to have to realize that we are definitely going to have to prioritize calls as they come in and we can’t make a guarantee that we’re going to have someone there within five to 10 minutes like we do now. All we can do is give attention where it’s needed as soon as we can.”

On a lighter note, as this situation is new to Jackson and the JPD, Chief Potter jokingly made a comparison to Star Trek, boldly going where no man has gone before.

“There’s not been a template for me with the number of people we have and the types of issues we’re facing,” he said.

Call it what you like, stating these facts is not meant to be fear-mongering, it’s simply saying what needs to be said in a way that takes into consideration the gravity of the situation. Do what needs to be done while the problem is still manageable.