One of the most controversial issues on the Alcona County ballot is a familiar proposal to renew a millage for the Huron Undercover Nacotics Team, which would allow the county to keep a local officer on the team and was voted down in August. The county's current HUNT millage expired this month, but if the renewal passes, the proposed 0.1458 mills would raise an estimated $111,000 a year to help fund HUNT's operations through the end of 2014.
The Alcona County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 on Oct. 17 to put the proposal on the ballot at the recommendation of Sheriff Doug Atchison, Prosecutor Tom Weichel, and HUNT members. Parties on both sides of the issue have attended public meetings to present conflicting arguments over where the money goes and what Alcona gets out of it. New HUNT commander Lt./Detective Frank Keck concedes the issue is multi-faceted. Recent controversies involving procedural errors and an investigations of a former commander, among other things, prompted Alcona to pull its officer from the team earlier this year and the Presque Isle County Board of Commissioners decided to not pursue a HUNT millage. Presque Isle Prosecutor Rick Steiger, who was investigated by HUNT on charges of doctor shopping last year, resigned from the HUNT board after serving six years and said the agency had become "deceptive" and "rogue." Keck said he thinks the Alcona commissioners proposed the millage for three years instead of five this time to give voters the option of a trial period.
"Everyone understands there have been some issues. The state police as well as the HUNT board are trying to work through those toward a positive end," he said. "I think they threw (the millage) back out there with a shorter amount of time to give voters an opportunity to say, 'We've been involved in this, we actually have a stake in what's going on in our community, maybe if we put it out there for a shorter amount of time, we'll see if this actually makes a turnaround.'"
One group in particular, Citizens for Alcona First, has made presentations and sold signs alleging HUNT was not a wise use of county resources. Paul Peterson, a founding member, said he was "very disappointed" when the commissioners turned down his group's recommendations for a school resource officer in favor of a second attempt at renewing the HUNT millage, though the board said in a statement last week that its support is conditional upon establishing some sort of regular school officer, which Atchison has agreed to provide. Peterson said he was frustrated that in the 22 years since HUNT was established, the agency's budget has doubled and Alcona County's annual share of the cost has climbed from $19,000 in 2002 to $51,000 at the first renewal to about $111,000 this year, with no consistent increase in arrests and investigations.
"Most disturbingly, in the early days Alpena paid in at a much higher ratio - about $3.87 for $1 that Alcona County did - but now it's down to about $1.60 for every $1 that Alcona County puts in, and yet Alpena still receives about three-fourths of the investigations," he said.
Peterson said he has a problem with the fact HUNT cannot crack down on the abuse of what he says are far more problematic legal substances, like alcohol and nicotine, which is why Citizens for Alcona First advocated for the educational, relationship-building approach of a school resource officer.
"All HUNT ever does if they bust somebody is say, 'You need to bring us three of your friends that you can get, and then we'll let you off more easily.' Over and over, I have talked to people specifically, that was their encounter, and that's not how you do it in the schools," he said.
Part of HUNT's grant funding, which accounts for much of its $890,000 budget, requires the agency to provide services in each of its four constituent counties with or without a millage. Weichel said losing the millage would severely limit HUNT's ability to serve the county, not everything the team does can be quantified, and the county needs HUNT more than it needs a school officer.
"It's my belief that this is a community safety issue. For people to come out and say things opposed to HUNT that don't work in community safety, that aren't police officers and don't have a background in the administration of criminal justice, I think it's a real issue, and it poses a threat to the safety of the people in the community," he said. "To jump and scream and say we need to educate our children, I can tell you that the last three cases I have had that have had high school students involved with drugs ... all three acquired the marijuana from their parent. So where does education really have to come from?"
Weichel stressed the need for a local HUNT officer because officers from other counties lack personal investment, and Keck agreed.
"Will they get services? Sure, but it makes no sense to think that they're going to get the same level of service when we don't have an officer who's down there making those contacts, talking with people," he said.
Andrew Westrope can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693.