Unlike some of his urban counterparts across the country, Sundance Mayor Paul Brooks’ call to defund his small town’s police department isn’t about racial equity or criminal-justice reform. It’s purely about keeping the lights on.
“The fact is that I don’t want to be out of the police business,” said Brooks. “But with cuts to our general fund, my hand is kind of forced.”
Sundance, a town of about 1,200 nestled in the northeast corner of the Equality State, won’t go without law enforcement if it adopts the mayor’s idea. It would contract for services with the Crook County Sheriff’s Department, which is already headquartered in Sundance, the county seat.
Brooks estimated the move could save the town up to $100,000 a year by eliminating its three-person police force. The new county contract, meanwhile, would enable the sheriff’s office to add two deputies to its staff of six and update communications systems that are more than a quarter-century old.
That’s a considerable chunk of change for a town with a $1.2 million annual budget. Sundance receives about half that amount from the state.
Brooks, who has been part of the town’s government since 1990 and mayor for the past decade, said the timing is perfect for the change. Previous county sheriffs wouldn’t even consider it, he recalled, but current Sheriff Jeff Hodge was receptive to the idea after it was pitched to him.
Police Chief Marty Noonan is retiring at the end of the year, and the two remaining police employees are also nearing retirement age. Sundance isn’t big enough to have a human resources department, Brooks said, so finding staff time to recruit and hire a new chief would be difficult.
Noonan told the Sundance Times that he struggled with this year’s budget and cut everything possible, but he would be unable to cut further. It’s simply not possible to operate a police department in the town with fewer than three people, the chief said.
Closing Sundance’s police department may well make fiscal sense, but it probably wouldn’t have been seriously considered if Wyoming hadn’t been hit by both the downturn of the minerals industry and the coronavirus pandemic. The drastic financial impacts are taking a toll on state and local government budgets, making offering essential services a formidable challenge.
How willing will Wyoming legislators be to keep giving cities, towns and counties $105 million in additional funds to divvy up per biennium when the entire state government is staring at an estimated $1.5 billion shortfall?
“I don’t like being at the whim of the state, I hate it. I positively hate it,” Brooks said. “It’s not what I want to do. But it’s the way it is.”
Towns with the good fortune to have a railroad yard or other industries that can provide a stable tax base may be able to survive without additional state help, Brooks said. They can even squirrel away some of those direct tax distribution funds.
“But for the rest of us, it goes straight to the general fund, which has to provide for emergency services like police and ambulance,” the mayor said. “We have no savings at all.”
Sundance is like many Wyoming towns — its low population is attractive to those who don’t like living in bigger cities, but it has difficulty offering more amenities without adding more people to its tax base.
Brooks said for his town to financially make it on its own, Sundance would need to about double its current population. His goal is orderly growth that can provide two staples of a good economy: businesses and housing.
Ah, but how does a town strike the proper balance as it grows? I don’t claim to know how Sundance folks feel, but as a long-time Wyoming resident I can assure you that many of my fellow citizens think this sparsely populated state has way too many people already. More people moving in means having to deal with more strangers, who might even have the nerve to tell us how they ran things back where they came from!
“I always tell people the town was broke when I took over and we’re still broke, but I believe it’s a nicer place,” said Brooks, who has spearheaded a decade-old beautification effort. “Everybody in the world tells you they want to live somewhere where it’s safe, but nobody tells you what safe looks like. My assumption is that clean looks safer than dirty.”
Brooks said he’s had some critics of his plan tell him to get rid of things like the town’s swimming pool instead of the police department. “But I don’t think you have a good town without things like summer rec programs for children,” he said.
David Fraser, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, said Sundance is the only town he’s aware of in the state that is in talks to eliminate an entire department.
“I’m sure it’s not something they would prefer to do, but in terms of trying to find some creative solutions to budget issues, I take my hat off to them,” said Fraser, who grew up in Sundance.
Brooks said one reason he thinks that contracting with the county for law enforcement will work in Sundance is because Sheriff Hodge is willing to consider helping with some ordinance enforcement, something most county sheriffs would be loath to take on.
“It’s hard to build a town that’s attractive without some form of ordinance enforcement,” Brooks said. “You have to be able to do something with barking dogs and nuisance complaints.”
Ironically, the fact that Hodge is so cooperative is one of the mayor’s chief concerns about his own proposal. “We have a really good sheriff now, but if the next one isn’t so good, I’ve led us down a bad path,” he said.
But the mayor still believes he’s on the right track.
“We’re gambling on cutting police back so we can build toward getting where we can be self-sufficient,” Brooks explained. “Hopefully some day people will find us and we can be on our own.”
I’m sure other small communities in Wyoming with their own budget crises will be keeping tabs on what happens with Sundance’s grand experiment. For towns with increasingly limited resources, police departments may literally be a luxury that’s no longer affordable. It sounds to me like a plan with a greater chance of progress than pitfalls.