The layoffs of two of the Lynchburg Police Department’s three officers over the weekend were necessary because there is no money left in the police department budget to pay them, mayor Gary Jones said Tuesday.
The layoffs came just days before the May 6 primary election when the village of Lynchburg will have a 5-mill property tax levy on the ballot for police department salaries. But Jones said the election had nothing to do with the timing of the layoffs.
“I was going to not make any comments about the layoffs for fear that it would throw the levy, but our legal adviser told me that if I didn’t put the brakes on now, we’d be operating at minus,” Jones said. “… So we were advised to go ahead and do what we did.”
“I hate it,” he said later. “These officers have families. My heart goes out to them.”
If the two part-time officers had not been laid off when they were, Jones said the police department budget would have run out of funds on May 9.
So, last Saturday he released a statement that said: “It is with great regret that I announce the layoff of two valued employees of the village of Lynchburg due to budget constraints. We tried to delay this decision for as long as we could. However, the fiscal officer reports that we are going to run out of funding even with these layoffs in about 30 days. I will work tirelessly with council to resolve this situation to ensure the safety of the citizens of Lynchburg.”
The lone officer left on the Lynchburg police force is chief Tim Heizer, who is employed full-time. Jones said the situation is bleak enough that he doesn’t know how long the village can keep paying Heizer.
“The chief will be here for a little further than May 9, until we can longer afford him,” Jones said. “I don’t know when that will be. I don’t know how much longer.”
The mayor said the police department has had zero operating funds since sometime in 2013, and that the village has had to lend the police department $30,000 from the general fund to keep it afloat to this point.
Jones, elected last year after former mayor Robbie Wallace resigned mid-term, said that if the village continued to borrow from the general fund to keep the police department operating as it was, the general fund would be depleted in a year and a half.
“I am unwilling to bankrupt the town to prop up the police department,” Jones said.
He said he could impose an income tax on the village residents. “But I’m not going to do that,” he said. “If the people don’t want police protection, I’m not going to force it down their throat.”
Jones blamed some of the police department’s financial woes on the prior administration. He said it only had funds for one police officer, but decided to borrow from the general fund to add more officers.
But he also said it really doesn’t matter anymore.
What matters, Jones said, is that the May 6 levy passes. And if it does, he said another police levy would have to be passed during the November general election before the village would consider reinstating officers. And even then, he said he’s not sure what would happen.
“If they both pass, we would rethink the (police) department,” Jones said. “I don’t want to talk about whether we would call anyone back. I think wages would need to be looked at very closely.”
Jones also said he has spoken with Highland County Sheriff Richard Warner and that Warner told him the sheriff’s office would help with patrolling the village.
But Warner said Tuesday that he has not agreed to any regular patrols in Lynchburg.
“I told (Jones) that basically they’re not going to be treated any different than anyone else in the county,” Warner said. “They won’t get any type of preferential treatment over any other part of the county.”
Warner said he has two deputies on patrol at any given time and that basically they spend their time running from call to call.
“Calls from Lynchburg will be handled like any other call in the county and we’ll get to them as quick as we can,” Warner said.
Jones said other departments in the village are running like a well-oiled machine. He said that for the police department to operate the same way, the levies need to be passed, and he asked the village residents to support them.
“What went wrong in the past doesn’t really matter. We just have to fix it,” Jones said. “… We are working our butts off to get this resolved. This village can make this happen. We can do this. I think we need to look at the positives we have going on here and get this work done.”
Jeff Gilliland may be reached at 937-393-3456 ext. 209 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.