Gahanna police Chief Jeff Spence said public safety and the community are at a crossroads with Issue 12 in terms of moving forward or backward.

"With our current funding situation in the city that Issue 12 is designed to correct, we're really at a crossroads," he said. "We're at a crossroads for our agency, for our community and really for the demands that central Ohio are placing upon us in law enforcement, and really from a public-safety perspective."

Spence said central Ohio continues to grow exponentially, and with that growth comes increased traffic, crashes, crime and demands on public safety.

"It's a fact. It will not go away," Spence said. "As call demand increases and our budget doesn't, we're down to personnel as far as the budget."

Should Issue 12 fail, Spence said, the police department will have to reduce services.

"If it passes, we can invest in infrastructure, modernize our equipment and plan for the demands of the future," he said.

On May 7, Gahanna voters will decide whether to increase the city's income-tax rate from 1.5% to 2.5%, and increase the tax credit from 83.33% to 100% for those who pay municipal taxes elsewhere.

If approved, 75% of the revenue resulting from the increase would be dedicated to capital improvements and equipment for infrastructure, public safety, municipal facilities or parks and recreation, including but not limited to streets, buildings, parks facilities, trails and playground elements, maintenance and repair of the equipment, and paying debt service for such purposes.

The other 25% would fund operations for public safety, public service or parks and recreation, including but not limited to police protection, 911 emergency services, snow removal, streetlight and

Early in-person voting and absentee voting by mail for the primary election began April 9.

Spence said another factor is that central Ohio and Gahanna aren't immune from the effects of the opioid epidemic.

"Ohio has been ground-zero for a number of years," he said. "We've experienced just as big of an impact on our operations due to the opioid crisis."

Since July 2016, Spence said, Gahanna police have responded to more than 120 overdoses.

"Some of those have resulted in fatalities," he said. "Crime that we experience, property crime and violent crime, generally speaking, is almost always tied back to either addiction or mental-health issues.

"We've got to be constantly ever-evolving. We have to be constantly improving. And that can't be done in an unstable financial environment. We've cut, we've reduced; we've been audited several times, looking at not only our financial expenditures, but how we run as an organization."

During each of the audits, Spence said, it has been proven "we're doing things the right way. We are fiscally responsible."

Spence said he has been involved in the budget preparation for the department during the past decade as a lieutenant, deputy chief and now as chief.

"We've cut and cut and cut," he said. "Those cuts aren't readily apparent to the public."

During the last decade, Spence said, the department has reduced its force through attrition from 61 to 55 full-time sworn officers, including three school-resource officers.

"We've reduced programs and expenditures," he said. "We're down to personnel. Layoffs of personnel is possible in 2020. It's a very real possibility.

"If we get into reducing full-time staff, our full-time officers-communication techs are represented by unions; part time has to be laid off before full time. Right now, because we are so under-strength, we have sworn officers doing administrative duties."

Spence said it's difficult to hire and attract people to the law-enforcement profession, especially when Gahanna is competing with such well-funded communities as Dublin, Hilliard and Westerville.

"I think the business owners of Gahanna have high expectations," Spence said. "If we cut salaries, what type of person will stay here if they can go to Dublin and make double the salary and have better equipment?"

He said Gahanna would love to expand its school-resource-officers program.

"There are problems in our middle schools," Spence said. "The schools are served by three school-resource officers, two of which are in the high school.

"Deterring (problems) is what that program is all about. How do you put a price tag on that?"

Spence said the police department requires training, as well as investments in equipment and facilities.

He said the current police station was built in 1971, remodeled in 1992 and went through a process of lead remediation in the mid-2000s.

"We long ago outgrew it," Spence said of the station. "It won't last another 50 years. Where do those dollars come from? That's not our immediate priority, but something we have to plan for."

Spence said the department reached a record a few years ago with 41,000 calls for service that resulted in a police response.

"We're at about 35,000 and on pace for about 37,000 calls for resulting in a police response (this year)," he said.

Carrin Wester, chairwoman of the Issue 12 campaign and a member of Gahanna Residents Improving Tomorrow, the group promoting the issue, said residents have been surprised to learn the police force has shrunk in terms of full-time sworn officers by 10% since 2007.

"Without additional revenue brought in by Issue 12, additional reductions affecting the number of full-time officers may be an option for 2020," she said. "No other city in Franklin County has had to lay off police officers in recent years. It's completely unheard of."

Wester said Gahanna would be in a class of its own if Issue 12 fails and officers are laid off because of a lack of public-safety funding.

Additionally, she said, safety equipment needs to be replaced, and that will be difficult without funding brought in with Issue 12.

"Safety is the foundation to any thriving community," she said. "Not being able to afford additional investment in public safety is something we have to overcome as a community, as it is of the utmost importance."

There is no known organized group opposing Issue 12.

Spence said residents have a choice in what Gahanna will look like in the future.

"Issue 12 is either a make or break for us in terms of what the future of this organization is going to look like," he said.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla