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For more than three decades, the town and the village of Cottage Grove have operated a joint police department, a cost-sharing partnership often heralded for its efficiency.

Now, in a move that took residents of both municipalities — and the police chief — by surprise, the village board notified the town of plans to dissolve the partnership and strike out on its own next year.

Village leaders say the current arrangement no longer makes economic sense for their constituents. The fast-growing village, which pays a majority of the department’s bills, needs a more concentrated police presence and is essentially subsidizing patrol coverage for the town’s sparser, far-flung population, they say.

The plan has people talking because of its price tag — perhaps about $200 more a year for the average village taxpayer — and for the secrecy surrounding the decision.

The Cottage Grove Police Department, established in 1982, stands out for its structure — there are perhaps fewer than a dozen joint police departments in the state, said Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. They’re tricky to pull off, he said, because “even when you can make the financial numbers work, there are political hurdles that usually relate to personalities or citizen perceptions of service levels, accurate or not.”

In the early 1990s, town and village officials praised each other in media reports for the ease in which they got along. Back then, the town had more than twice as many residents as the village and paid the majority of the police costs.

Those numbers have flipped. The village now has about 6,200 residents, the town about 3,800. Consequently, the village pays 62 percent of the police costs and the town 38 percent, which roughly equates to the 60/40 split in equalized property value between the two entities. The village also has about 60 percent of the service calls.

But other statistics put the town on top. It has 71 percent of the road miles and 76 percent of the traffic crashes, according to a $13,500 “dissolution study” by the consulting firm Baker Tilly. The village board commissioned the study last year, unbeknownst to town officials or Police Chief Chris Hughes.

The study found that when it comes to “dynamic factors” such as the number of road miles patrolled and the number of traffic crashes responded to, the town may consume about 70 percent of the department’s workload.

“We felt the analysis could lead one to believe the village is subsidizing the town, and we felt that wasn’t the best use of taxpayer money,” said Diane Wiedenbeck, village president. “It’s very seldom we see police cars sitting or moving around in the village, because many times we’re down to one officer, and that officer is at a crash in the town.”

Closed doors

On Dec. 16, village trustees emerged from a closed session and unanimously voted to notify the town of the village’s intent to withdraw from the joint police department at the end of 2014. The contract requires a one-year notice.

“It was a total shock to myself, the town board and the police chief,” said Kris Hampton, town chairman. He called it “unprofessional” for the village to have commissioned a study that didn’t get the chief’s input, and he took issue with the level of secrecy.

“I have a problem with the number of closed sessions they had dealing with items that should be in the open for the public to see,” he said.

Robert Dreps, a Madison attorney whose practice emphasizes media law, said the village board “definitely violated the open meetings law.” When notice is given of a closed session, the description of the subject to be discussed must be specific enough so that citizens can determine whether they want to be present when the governing body reconvenes into open session, Dreps said.

That didn’t happen Dec. 16, Dreps said. That night, the agenda listed a closed session for “property related matters, discussion on current joint agreements involving the village of Cottage Grove.” This was insufficient because it did not specify which joint agreement was to be discussed, Dreps said. At the least, it should have said something about “police services” or name the other party in the joint agreement, he said.

Furthermore, Dreps said the village board appears to have gone into closed session to discuss a broad policy issue, which should be done in public.

Village attorney Lee Boushea rejects the analysis. He believes the village board gave sufficient notice and that its members did not decide a policy issue in closed session but rather discussed aspects of the contract underlying the law enforcement agreement between the two municipalities.

“No decision was made other than to say, we’ve looked at our options and we’re going to give notice,” Boushea said. “Now that the initial step has been taken, the time for public input and final decisions is occurring.”

New study

In a Dec. 26 letter to residents, the village board said it had “voted to initiate the process of establishing a village-only police department, effective Jan. 1, 2015.” The letter also said the board expected to limit the impact on the average village taxpayer to about $200.

While the letter reads as if the dissolution of the joint department is a done deal, village officials insist that’s not the case. Wiedenbeck said the issue will be on most agendas for the rest of the year, giving residents the opportunity to weigh in.

Jennifer Pickel, another village trustee, said she and her colleagues are at the beginning of the process. “I’m not going to say I’ve made up my mind in any way, shape or form,” she said, “although I was definitely in favor of submitting the notification to the town.”

The board now is working to hire a public safety consultant to study staffing and facility needs, said Matt Giese, village administrator. Town officials, meanwhile, are looking into how they’ll provide police protection, with one option being to contract with the Dane County Sheriff’s Office.

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