By SARA CLIFFORD and SUZANNAH COUCH, sclifford@bcdemocrat.com, scouch@bcdemocrat.com

If you ask Sheriff Scott Southerland, his department is firing on all cylinders.

But the concern remains: How long will the momentum last?

Ideally, he’d like to see an additional three or four full-time deputies on the road helping his current officers deal with more than triple the amount of cases in the past three years.

In 2014, the total number of reported crimes in Brown County — including larceny, burglary, vehicle theft and aggravated assault — was 110.

In 2016, the total was 343. The largest crime category was larceny — otherwise known as theft — at 171 cases.

“Everywhere you look, the numbers like this — whether it’s arrest, if it’s a case tried by a prosecutor or total calls — they are just skyrocketing, and the guys are working really hard. They are doing good work,” Southerland said.

“I just don’t know how long they can keep going at this pace without getting burnt out.”

Taxpayers in Brown County support two local police agencies: the sheriff’s department and the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department. Most of their funding comes from property and income taxes; it also comes from grants and fees, like tickets.

Not counting the jail and Animal Control, the Brown County Sheriff’s Department’s budget is about $1.8 million. The Nashville Metropolitan Police Department’s budget is about $625,000.

When fully staffed, the NMPD has enough officers to deal with the incidents it’s called to investigate, said Chief Ben Seastrom.

The problem is that that officers typically don’t stick around long. When openings become available elsewhere that pay more — like at the sheriff’s department — or allow them to train in different specialties, Seastrom is back to hiring and training again.

After Seastrom and Chief Deputy Tim True, who each have about 10 years of experience, the next most senior officer has two years.

More than a year ago, Seastrom approached the town council to ask if it would contribute money to help get officers enrolled in a higher-paying benefits system in an attempt to keep them around. The council couldn’t find the extra money in its budget to do so. The NMPD’s merit board started talking about fundraising ideas but doesn’t have a solution yet.

The sheriff’s department recently applied for a COPS Hiring Program grant through the U.S. Department of Justice that would pay the salary and benefits of a new officer for the first three years, or up to $125,000. After that, the sheriff’s department would need to absorb the cost into their budget, Southerland said.

This year, the sheriff’s department has yet to lose a deputy to a better paying surrounding county, but Southerland knows one is heading that way. The NMPD also is losing one to another department for sure soon and possibly a second.

“They always would like to have more money. We just can’t compete with the surrounding counties. We’re going to try to make the job satisfaction high enough so that it offsets some of that,” Southerland said.

He said one thing that would help is if the county could compete more with surrounding counties on home prices. He said he prefers for deputies to live in the county, but the price difference between a home here and 10 miles north of here is “huge.”

Money and needs

Southerland said there are currently no gaps in funding from the county that prevent his department from doing the best job it can. When he needs something, he said he and county officials work to get it figured out.

The county does have room in its taxing structure to charge more for public safety, according to the Indiana State Board of Accounts and Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.

Southerland said he would “rather not if we didn’t have to” because “I am a taxpayer too.”

“I’d rather do grant funding or try to figure out a way to absorb it within our existing budget as best as we can,” he said.

Last month, the county commissioners announced they were looking into taking out a $2 million capital improvement loan to fund three projects, including replacing the emergency communication tower in the state park and adding another in the Bean Blossom area.

Their plan is to keep the loan “tax-neutral,” replacing another charge that is rolling off soon.

Southerland estimates the communications project will cost at least $500,000 to $600,000.

“If there are a few places in the county that you rarely see a police car, that’s probably why,” Southerland said. “They don’t like to work or stop cars where they don’t have any communication.”

Seastrom’s needs for the town police continue to be equipment and training.

He worked with the town council to get five police vehicles to fit into the town’s budget next year; he had asked for six.

He’s made town leaders aware that he needs to replace computers and a server within the next five years. He’s just been able to replace in-car cameras which were well past their lifespan. Only in recent years has he been able to get all new bulletproof vests, he said.

If he had more money, he’d like to be able to offer more training on technology-based crimes, the use of firearms and physical tactics, driving and current laws. Now, that occurs once or twice a year.

“I want us to take the time to educate ourselves and try and do a better job,” he said.

For the equipment needs, he’s hoping grants can help. He knows tax increases are a hard sell.

“I’m not sure if the citizens would be OK with that, but somewhere, we need to expand public safety,” Seastrom said, also mentioning money for fire protection.

Consolidate?

The idea of consolidating the town police and county sheriff’s department has surfaced multiple times, especially around elections.

It’s been brought up again in recent months with plans for the Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center showing a road going where the Nashville police station is now. Those plans are not final, and the town council hasn’t been approached in a public meeting about moving the station, which it is still paying off.

If the proposed road were to happen, Southerland said he doesn’t think the sheriff’s department has enough space to house the town police separately inside it, and he doesn’t think consolidating the town police with the county department would work.

“I think there’s too many things the town needs that are unique — working with the Town Hall, with the town council, town ordinances,” he said.

Seastrom said he doesn’t foresee the Maple Leaf putting any additional strain on his officers, since typically those types of venues hire their own security. He doesn’t anticipate any town officers needing to spend on-duty time at the venue unless something occurred there that required an officer, like a crash in traffic or a theft from a vehicle.

Seastrom said a separate Nashville department still is needed — not only with the influx of tourists, but also for town residents.

“With the need from our actual community, I think we’re going to stay. Things may change in the future, but as I can see it, in the next 10 years or more, we’re going to be here.”

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