HARRISVILLE - Alcona County Sheriff Doug Atchison said Monday he is down to a skeleton crew. If one of his deputies gets injured, it could hamper the county's ability to patrol 674 square miles of small towns and rural areas around the clock. As a result, officer safety has become one of his priorities.
On Jan. 1, Atchison laid off one patrolman and reduced another to part-time status after Alcona voters turned down a millage increase for an undercover narcotics team.
"The last hired were the first to go," Atchison said.
One full-time deputy was able to get on with the Iosco County law enforcement; the other is working half-time in the jail.
The end result is that there are two fewer deputies to patrol the county, and it is going to be worrisome when summer tourism is at its peak. Although emergency calls are prioritized, response to other calls could be as long as 45 minutes, he said.
"If we need more staff, officers are called from home," he said. "But that involves overtime when the budget is already spread thin."
Borrowing officers from other counties isn't a solution, because those departments also have gone through cuts, he said.
Alcona County voters turned down a millage for the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team in November 2012, after having voted it down in an August primary. If it had passed, Atchison said his department would have received $109,948 from the program, at a cost of about $9 per property owner.
Atchison said the part-time deputy in the jail no longer has health insurance, retirement or accumulated vacation or sick pay, and his paycheck has been cut in half. He said one Alcona deputy still remains on the undercover team, because some investigation funds remain.
The department's heyday was around 2007, he said. Then officials discovered $1.2 million had been embezzled by an elected county treasurer. The economy also began to spiral downward. As property values dropped, so did money for law enforcement budgets.
The department provides protection not only for Alcona but also for the municipalities it contains, such as Harrisville and Lincoln, Atchison said. Two deputies are always on the road around the clock seven days a week as well as on the water, providing marine patrol of Hubbard Lake, Cedar Lake and Alcona Pond. There is no other law enforcement except for Michigan State Police.
"For the most part, we are it," he said.
In addition to making sure his deputies are safe, Atchison remains concerned about crimes such as larceny, breaking and entering, domestic violence, alcoholism, and drug abuse. One of his plans is to train ambulance and fire protection personnel to recognize narcotics and drug manufacturing chemicals if they see something unusual when on a call.
"They are actually producing meth in a 20-ounce pop bottle," Atchison said. "A pop bottle found on the side of the road could contain dangerous chemicals."
Commissioner Carolyn Brummund said the board will not put a HUNT millage back on the ballot, even though the issue could come up again in 2014. A similar ballot issue for an increase in funds for the sheriff's department also isn't in the cards.
"The most important thing I can offer my constituents is a safe place to live," Brummund said. "The second thing is somebody to respond to them - an ambulance. The third thing is if you have good law enforcement you have to have a good judicial system."
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693.