By Jeri Pearson
When complaints of the effects of growth reached the Polk County Quorum Court late last year, justices asked County Judge Brandon Ellison and Sheriff Scott Sawyer to bring solutions to the court to be considered.
The complaints include rescue calls for ATVs and that private property is not being respected and ATV trails are being used during the off season and at night.
Polk County Sheriff Scott Sawyer told the court laws have changed over the past couple of legislative sessions and said ATV riders are no longer prohibited from riding on county roads or even crossing state highways on ATVs to get to a trail head.
Sawyer explained his office and deputies patrol as much as possible in the area, but often only two or three deputies are on duty covering 800 square miles.
Sawyer said his office responds to calls from concerned individuals in the area often, but unless the riders are breaking the law, there is not much that can be done.
Last year Sawyer told that court that for $25,000 to $30,000 he could have a part-time deputy patrol that area on weekends, similar to what is currently being done to patrol the south of the county.
After consideration and reviewing options, Sawyer presented the justices at the June meeting with a request to add a full time deputy to his office at the annual cost of $63,000 per year, which includes salary and benefits.
If the court approves the position at the July meeting, the cost to add the position to this year’s budget from August through December would be approximately $27,000, however with some funds currently available in the budget the new position would only increase the line item at a cost of $14,000 to the county.
“At the end of year last year, and again at beginning of this year, we talked about adding patrols at Big Fork and Board Camp,” Sawyer said at the meeting. “I requested time to review needs. We currently have a contract with the Forest Service for two shifts a week, and that is just in camp grounds, two nights a week. That keeps us from going out to Shady Lake, which is a 45 minutes drive out from Mena. We have had a contract with them since the late 80s, early 90s and it has been a good deal.”
“The problem is, it’s only two shifts a week in south Polk County and Shady and I don’t have enough deputies to put out on patrol. If we added three more ATV patrols in there that would increase to 12 to 15 more shifts. To accomplish that, I would like you to consider to allow me to add a new full time deputy.”
Sawyer said by adding a full time, certified officer to his roster of 16 full time deputies.
“I would get more patrols sooner out of a certified officer,” Sawyer explained. Plus, we don’t have to pay for them to go to the academy.”
The justices requested an ordinance be prepared for the July meeting so that it can be adopted and a full time deputy be added to the sheriff’s office on August 1.
Sawyer said he did consider adding a part time patrol.
“It is cheaper, but manpower wise, it really takes 2 to 5 years where I feel comfortable setting them out there alone.”
Sawyer told the justices the sheriff’s office has not had a new full-time patrol deputy added since 2003.
“My guys work hard and are very busy,” he said. Since 2003, call volume has gone up exponentially. Folks are adding RV spots and building new cabins and rentals. The area is blowing up, and it is good for our local economy, but we need more patrols and manpower.”
Sawyer said deputies have written tickets and responded to calls.
“However, I can’t always send one deputy out there for six hours on a Thursday night,” he said. “This is the only option I feel comfortable with and I wouldn’t ask for it if it wasn’t necessary.”
Justices agreed that the Sheriff’s Office has been fiscally responsible and that adding the position is needed.
Last year, Ellison said the complaints that have been received indicate growth and solutions can be sought.
“We have a bit of a problem. We can fix it, but we need to address it in a well- thought out way,” he said. “This is an economic development issue. Tourism is what we do. Yes, we raise livestock and cut logs, have the motor plant and manufacturing. We are set up with a diversified economy and that is a good thing – and tourism is part of that.”
Ellison said he wants to respond to issues without making knee jerk reactions.
“We need to make well thought out decisions,” Ellison said. “I understand many of the folks who have lived out there a long time are experiencing change. Every community that sees growth has problems, but we need to remember that indicates we are doing well.”