The City of Wells is $8,000 in the red, said Mayor Pro Tem Robert Kalka. And the city council may have to choose between terminating Wells’ only police officer or risking bankruptcy.
“There’s a lot of things that haven’t come in; a lot of our taxes. Our city taxes have not come in, the sales taxes have not come in,” Kalka said after Monday’s city council meeting. “We just got a Dollar General store, which should make the sales tax increase quite a bit, but that’s things you can’t count on. That’s the problem — you know it’s coming but you don’t know when.”
To pay the city’s bills the city council has to withdraw $8,000 from savings, and had to borrow money to make repairs on the sewer system. The city’s savings is estimated at $21,000 before the withdrawal, Kalka said.
“There’s not a whole lot in there. It wouldn’t take but two, three months and we’d deplete what we have in our savings,” Kalka said. “It’s not going to last forever.”
City council members discussed in open session whether Wells could afford Jeff Clopp, the city’s part-time police chief and only patrol man. Clopp was hired in May to work 25 hours a week, and his recent 50-hour weeks are more than the city can afford, said City Council Member Dorothy McMillion.
“You’re putting in about 189 (hours) most months, except this one you put in 291 (hours),” McMillion said to Clopp during the meeting. “When you go 29 hours or 30 hours of overtime you’re drawing the pay $10,000 more than if we hired a full-time chief of police to be here.”
Clopp’s hours are now earning him about $47,000 a year, McMillion said.
“So what are your suggestions when people call me? Just tell ‘em ‘No, I can’t,’” Clopp said to McMillion. “I was told if they call me not to turn it down ... Someone’s got to be here for these people.”
The city council proposed referring calls to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department after Clopp has worked his allotted 25 hours for the week. But some citizens opposed the idea.
“I understand the county can take care of some of it, but county doesn’t show up like they’re supposed to,” said long-time resident Shanon Thomas, mother of two. “I’ve heard people just spoke in here that when they grew up county was here — things have changed ... That’s the whole reason why I moved here, so it would be a safe area for my kids to go to school.”
Wells Fire Department First Responder Julie McKnight said she can not do her job without a police officer in town.
“We can’t go in someone’s home without a police officer going in there and saying it’s safe. We can’t do it. You might bleed to death,” McKnight said. “Well, that happens coming from Cherokee County. Even ETMC can’t go in and help you if you don’t have a police officer on the scene.”
Cherokee County deputies can take several hours to respond to calls, said some citizens.
“I got hit out here crossing the road,” said Wells resident John Thomas. “They came off the road and hit me. I called Cherokee County or 911 to report the accident and it was six hours before anyone showed up.”
Some citizens suggested putting Clopp on salary so he wouldn’t have to be paid overtime, but some city council members opposed.
“First of all we cannot go with a salary because then we have to give him benefits,” McMillion said. “We hired him at 25 (hours). We could not afford benefits. We cannot afford 40 hours.”
In reponse, Clopp said that the only benefit that the city would be required to pay is retirement. Clopp has been a police officer for 24 years and before coming to Wells he was working towards retirement.
“I offered to forego my benefits until the city gets on its feet,” Clopp said.
But the city’s situation has not improved, said city council member Carol Wilbur Smith, and something has to be done.
“Well, I just don’t see how we can keep going how we’re going. I have no idea,” Smith said. “I know that everybody’s safety is the main concern but if this town goes bankrupt, we’re not going to need no police chief; we’re not going to need a police officer.”
Clopp has reserve officers — volunteer officers that aren’t paid — slated to help police the city, but they must first go before the city council for approval.
The city council will reconvene Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. at Wells City Hall to decide what to do about the city’s financial problem.
“I have sleepless nights worrying about what’s going on with this town,” said city council member Paula Goins.