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Mabton police chief's on-duty hours slashed

MABTON - The reversal of Mabton Mayor Velva Herrera's July decision to double Police Chief Robert Perales's hours from 20 to 40 per week has left some residents nervous about safety in their community.

The reversal came at the regularly scheduled meeting last night, Tuesday, when all five council members voted in favor of upholding its wage-setting ordinance passed at the beginning of 2008.

In that ordinance, Perales's pay was set at $1,875 a month and he was working 20 hours a week.

In July, Herrera informed council that she was more than doubling his pay to $4,000 and increasing his hours to 40 per week. Herrera justified it by saying law and justice tax monies would be used, as well as $500 per month that had been set aside to pay Granger when the two cities utilized his policing services.

The subject was broached again in late September, when Councilwoman Oping Hutson questioned Perales as to whether or not he was entitled to retirement benefits. At the time, Perales responded that he didn't believe that benefits kicked in until after six months.

Council members learned last night that is not correct.

City Clerk Kitty Zavala told council members that her research indicated that the city must pay $218 in benefits per month because he is working full time.

Hutson asked Perales why he'd stated last month that it wouldn't have to be paid for six months.

He explained that the payment of benefits has to do with his status as a fully commissioned officer certified by the state. "We didn't take that into consideration," Perales said.

Perales began to talk about low police staffing levels when Councilman Angel Reyna cut him off. "It's not appropriate to tell the public that," Reyna said.

After the meeting, Reyna explained that earlier this year, Perales divulged during a public meeting periods when the city has no coverage. This is what he was trying to prevent from happening again, he said.

"Why are we going to give criminals keys to the city and let them know when we can do certain things and when we can't?" said Reyna.

But Perales countered after the meeting that Mabton is in a "catch 22" situation. "You've got to look at information (and ask) does it outweigh the need to keep it a secret," he said, adding that council's decision will impact the city, especially during the daytime and also at the schools.

He said there will be no daytime coverage. The current student resource officer is off-duty for an extended period of time and one is on vacation, also for an extended period of time. Perales said that without his assistance, that leaves just two officers to provide the city coverage.

After the meeting, both the mayor and the chief said that law and justice tax monies and the money the school district pays to have a student resource officer would have been enough to cover wages and the retirement.

Perales said, "(It would have) covered it completely, with money to spare."

He added, "If they want to enact wages, that's one thing. But emergencies arise...these are trying times right now."

During the meeting, council expressed two main concerns.

The city's financial position is still unknown. Standard accounting practices were not followed and the books are only balanced to the end of May 2008.

"The ordinance needs to be followed because we don't know where we're at financially," Reyna said. After the meeting he expounded on that and said, "She (Herrera) never did her research to fully understand what we needed to do."

Herrera said that she did research wages and she compared Perales's pay to that of police chiefs in similar sized cities. When it came to the amount, $4,000, she said she was simply rounding it out to an even number. She said that instead of just doubling it to $3,750, she wanted "a flat fee and that's what it was. What's $250 more? That's all it is."

After the meeting, Councilwoman Shelly Mireles said, "It's the (money) thing. We have had nothing given to us to reflect (where we're at financially). Where's (the money) coming from to pay him? Where are we going to get this from? We don't even know where we're at and that's what's scaring me right now."

Another concern was the manner in which Herrera told council about his pay, which legally is set by ordinance. Council found out via a memo.

Herrera explained after the meeting that when she made that decision, she knew what was looming on the horizon, with employees taking time off and that she was "thinking ahead."

She told council, "I needed the chief to cover some shifts. We are low (in terms of staffing) and we need coverage."

Reyna responded, "I wish you would have asked in that manner."

Councilman Martinez questioned whether or not it would be cheaper to hire a reserve officer.

Perales told resident Mark Gourneau after the meeting, "We're not going to have police coverage as of tomorrow." A few minutes later, he quantified that statement by saying, "They just ended (it) here tonight--they just ended the extra coverage I've been providing."

Perales said he's not just concerned about a spike in property crimes, but a spike in violent crimes, too.

Gourneau said that he believes that public safety trumps many things in terms of where the city should be spending its money.

"I'm questioning our safety now," he said, adding that he once felt safe compared to other cities, like Granger, Grandview and Sunnyside.

"Police officers should be a priority in this town before anything else. Safety is what matters. Taxpayers pay to live in a safe environment."

Perales said his next step is to immediately call a meeting with the school district to address the situation.

"We won't be providing (student resource officer) services to them," he said after the meeting. "I can't pull an officer from coverage for the city for the school."

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