By Lyra Bordelon
The reduction of the Alderson Police Department to half its operating capacity loomed large over the Thursday, June 11, meeting of the Alderson Town Council. In addition to discussion around a new council member, the demolition of a building next to city hall, changes to abatement policy, and more, the council heard from Police Chief Jeremy Bennet on the issues facing the department.
“On the 28th of May, we met to figure out the issues of trying to look at pay, morale, and everything else we had [in the Alderson Police Department],” explained Copenhaver. “On the 28th, Jeremy advised me he was going on military leave effective June 1 and that [former Alderson Officer Rigoberto Rodriguez Jr.] was taking an officer job in Lewisburg. That’s the first I knew, … so this was your first council meeting to deal with it.”
Due to a National Guard deployment within West Virginia, Bennet is only available for administrative work with the department, unable to patrol. This and Rodriguez’s departure means the typically four-person department is down to only two patrolling officers. Bennet said this was due to current conditions in the department and warned it could get worse before it improves.
“Honestly, and I can’t speak for all these guys, … the heart and soul of the department is gone,” said Bennet.“We’re a three-man department right now. … My soul’s gone too. I don’t care. … I think we all have to look out for what’s best for us and our careers. [Officer Simmons] is looking to go elsewhere, [Officer] Ratliff is probably looking to go elsewhere too. You might want to start looking at what you want to do to get ahead. I urge you to do it right, test, and do it like you’re supposed to, not go out on the streets and start asking people. … Specifically, the biggest things we’re fighting right now are department time, administration issues, security.”
Bennet also pushed against the mayor and council on several of the items considered during the Thursday meeting, including changes to impound fees and budget revisions. Copenhaver explained the policy changes include more separation between the general fund from the special police fund, which includes forfeitures, unclaimed property, and more revenue sources “that can be applied to operations of monetary gain by the [police] department through the course of normal duty.” The council also approved a change to impound fees, which “will no longer go to the special police fund in an effort to try to offset revenue that I’m about to explain we’re going to lose.”
“Those guys take pride in that,” Bennet said. “They work hard to work traffic because they know that money is going back towards equipment that we agreed a long time ago to offset. Now that money is going to the general fund. … If you start doing stuff behind their backs and behind our backs, they’re not going to do it. Right there is your revenue. That’s what they look forward to. These guys work hard to go out there and work traffic and impound cars because they know if they need a rifle [that’s how it’s paid.] Remember when we voted and bought the guns? Where do you think that came from? Special police fund. Every uniform we bought? Special police fund, not the general fund. It’s because these guys work hard to get that. And all the sudden you’re going to take that from us?”
House Bill 4958, passed by the West Virginia Legislature and signed by Governor Jim Justice earlier this year, according to Copenhaver, is the reason for the change in policy.
“Effective July 1, we can no longer suspend a driver’s license for failure to pay fines and costs,” Copenhaver said. “The municipal courts, magistrate courts, and circuit courts have lost the ability to penalize someone who cannot pay fines and costs. Our legislature, under the cover of darkness, passed this act in an effort to make more people in the state of West Virginia have a driver’s license. … When we do our general fund, fines and costs make up about 10 percent of the general fund, well under what the auditor’s office says we have to do. However, in order to offset this difference, that’s why this policy change is happening.”
After ample discussion, Copenhaver nominated Councilmember Doris Kesley to head a special meeting, bringing together the council, police department, and other parties in order to get a comprehensive look at all of the issues facing the department, the town, and make the best possible plan forward.
“This is a topic that needs some discussion, more input, looking for solutions,” said Kesley. “I feel like it needs to be addressed. … I’m not pointing fingers, … I need more information about what needs to be done.”
The meeting is anticipated to take place in approximately a week. Although asked to by Bennett, Copenhaver said he would not attend.
“In every form and fashion, the last two weeks, the last three weeks, I’d love to walk out the door because everything is my fault,” Copenhaver said. “And when you try to fix it, you get the response I just got. This stuff has been discussed. … I offered to resign. I offered to step away. I have had it. I don’t think anybody in the room understands how much I’ve had it. This has affected my personal life. … The bottom line is I was elected to carry this through, and you don’t make decisions that make everybody happy.”
Just before the end of the meeting, a motion was introduced to rescind the changes to the special police fund and impound processes pending Kesley’s meeting, but due to meeting rules the motion was nullified. Instead, Copenhaver issued a public notice to the town employees responsible for making the changes to wait until after the special meeting.
In other council business:
- Demolition of 204 Monroe Street South, the building located next to Town Hall is expected within the next month through the Slum and Blight program. The building contains asbestos and a storm has blown off sections of the roof; Copenhaver explained, despite some citizen concerns about potential historical significance, the building would be torn down because it is “a building full of asbestos that has been vacated since the family sold it to the municipality, and the municipality bought it to tear it down because it’s blight” and there are not enough funds to restore it through town budget or available grants. Copenhaver also noted that a contractor Alderson agreed to pay to demolish the building was stopped, in part, because of a Department of Environmental Protections inspection, which could have hit the town with a $50,000 fine and “threatened” to take Copenhaver “away in cuffs. … It is not at all what we would think the enforcement from EPA would be as a customer service person.”
- Council approved a revision to Chapter 39b of the town code. “Basically, the changes to the ordinance are [about] the abatement process,” Copenhaver explained. “The officer or individual enforcing has the opportunity to give the individual receiving the citation, as long as they feel necessary to do it, Copenhaver explained. “There is also a clause in there that allowed for the notice to abate having an appeal process. That process was removed. Also, it added back not a monetary fine but, if you remember, in 2008 when this ordinance was originally passed and amended, there was jail time on that ordinance. In light of the fact that we’re losing the ability to suspend driver’s licenses for fines and costs, we’re adding jail time back to this enforcement so there is some heat to get the property cleaned up. … The revenue isn’t the major ordeal in this case, the enforcement of the actual ordinance is the deal.”
- Council continued work on its ongoing water infrastructure improvement project and the FEMA-funded repairs to the city following the flood of 2016.
- After some issues were raised in the FEMA lot lease selection process, council decided to handle different individuals seeking a contested lease to apply through a sealed bidding process.
- After a question about trash cans and recycling, Copenhaver explained many of the trash, dog waste, and recycling bins in the town were cleaned by volunteers and he is uncertain when they will resume doing so due to COVID-19.
The Alderson Town Council regularly meetings on the second Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall.