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Two down, three to go

Ashland is on track to add two police officers as soon as they can be hired, trained and sworn in, but three other positions will have to wait until City Council can nail down how to pay for them.

Ashland City Council passed an ordinance Tuesday to raise fees on utility meters by 50 cents per month, which will raise roughly $75,000, according to Councilor Rich Rosenthal, who proposed the ordinance.

The council earlier this year promised Police Chief Tighe O’Meara five new officers at a cost of more than half a million dollars yearly. The roughly $550,000 has proved to be elusive however, not being found during Budget Committee meetings nor in subsequent council sessions.

Property taxes were raised 4.5 cents per $100,000 in assessed valuation June 30. That was enough for one new officer. The new utility fee paves the way for a second.

As for the other three officers, the council decided to create a working group to see whether revenue could be found in the existing budget. But as of now, two officers are approved for hiring rather than five.

Councilors Traci Darrow and Dennis Slattery voted against raising the meter fee.

“To be clear ... I am in favor of hiring five new police officers if we can find the appropriate revenue,” Slattery said. “No one wants the five officers more than I do. I voted for it on the contingency we would find the right funding, and I haven’t seen it yet.”

“I am opposed to further increases in utility fees,” said Darrow. “It’s too hard on people. I can’t support it, as I have stated.”

Councilor Mike Morris disagreed. “It’s a household fee, and the only way to capture it is through the meter.” He said he did not think 50 cents more per month would be a deal breaker. “I think we need these two officers, and I support it.”

Councilor Greg Lemhouse urged councilors to push for all five officers but eventually agreed to the fee for one more so long as the idea of hiring three more full-time officers would be considered.

Rosenthal agreed to consider all of the proposed hires depending on how much money comes in from the city’s share of the state marijuana tax.

“Once we know the marijuana tax number, we can see what’s there.”

O’Meara argued for five officers, saying that would give him four people on the beat for each shift and one more as a school resource officer. Without the extra officer per shift, there are times when only one officer is in a cruiser on a given shift, he said.

On Tuesday he told the council he had two finalists identified, one an experienced officer from North Dakota and the other a local person who would need training.

“If you gave me the go-ahead tonight, that person may not be fully trained by tourist season next year,” O'Meara said.

O’Meara says it takes roughly nine months to train a rookie cop. The other person, who is a “lateral hire” with experience, could be trained much more quickly.

The council agreed to continue looking for funding by scouring the current, recently approved budget and seeking cost savings elsewhere.

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.