HARDIN — The Hardin City Council voted 5-1 Tuesday to explore creating a city police force, costing between $412,000 and $514,000 a year, according to Hardin Mayor Joe Purcell.
“Our biggest push is public safety in this process. Our other push is trying to rebuild the reputation of Hardin and, in turn, trying to promote some economic development and getting businesses back down here again," Purcell told Q2 over the phone Wednesday.
A Hardin police force has been on the City Council's mind since the fall of 2019. Purcell said he hired Stillwater County Justice of the Peace Lee Cornell to consult and form the initial plan for a Hardin police force.
Currently, Hardin pays $490,000 a year to Big Horn County for coverage by the sheriff's office, Purcell said. The sheriff's office is responsible for patrolling the 5,000-square-mile county, which contains Hardin.
"We are such a big county. Our contract (police) service meets the legal need as far as having coverage. It’s kind of been the status quo: the county will take care of it. With our county being so big, and we have all these other issues going on in our surrounding communities: Lodge Grass, Pryor, Fort Smith. We needed more coverage," Purcell said.
Purcell said the proposal the council has been looking at may include one full-time police chief, three full-time officers and three part-time officers, for a total of seven officers.
“But that’s all stuff we’re trying to work out," Purcell said.
With that staffing, Purcell said there would be a three-hour period in the early morning and at noon that would have one officer on duty. The goal would be to set up agreements with the Big Horn County Sheriff's Office to back up Hardin police during the light staffing hours.
"So if officers did have the need for emergency backup, someone would be available to help back them up,” Purcell said.
The plan is to have officers live in Hardin, or at least in Big Horn County, Purcell said.
Rising crime and rising costs for the city motivated the choice to go after a Hardin police force, Purcell said.
The mayor foresees coal revenue from the Spring Creek mine and others, which Big Horn County relies on, decreasing in the coming years. Meaning the county could charge Hardin more for law enforcement.
"I anticipate we’re going to be paying a lot more for services from the county just to meet the same needs. We’re trying to be proactive and look forward to that. We can run a cheaper department than the county can. We would have way less overhead," Purcell said.
Purcell credited the lower overhead cost to Hardin not having to follow the same pay scales and raise schedules as the sheriff's office.
"Between the sheriff and undersheriff and the salary schedules that are mandated by the state, we don’t have to follow those compliance as much. So we can actually run a department for less money. That was kind of the other part of it is, it was the public safety element then trying to be proactive with the costs in the future,” Purcell said.
Next, the Hardin City Council will put together a police commission to establish policies and procedures for the new department. Then the council will look for places to house the department and then track down government grants to lower the cost.
“Ideally, my timeline is between now and July at the end of our fiscal year, so we can roll right into a new budget. And to be able to go forward with that and have the hard numbers then. Of course that will depend on how fast things go," Purcell said.
Ten years ago, Hardin almost signed a deal with American Police Force, to have Guantanamo Bay prisoners housed in its jail. That plan, however, fell apart after its primary proponent, Michael Hilton, was found to be misleading the local government and later put in jail.