CUMBERLAND — All six Democratic challengers seeking one of three seats on the Allegany County Board of Commissioners realize their campaigns have to include more than a single issue.

For some, however, there is no single topic brought up more in casual conversation than the controversy surrounding the Bureau of Police and Sheriff’s Office, and the current commissioners’ decision in July 2008 to expand the bureau and transfer road patrol duties to the bureau from Sheriff David Goad.

All six Democratic challengers — Rick Atkinson, Bill DuVall, Victor Merkel, Tom Striplin, Ed Hedrick and Bill Taccino — believe the county’s law enforcement efforts should be under the supervision of the elected sheriff.

“I would have never lied and deceived the people into believing I was not attempting to create the Bureau of Police,” Atkinson said of the current commissioners’ public comments and actions in the summer of 2007, when they approved a Code Home Rule bill to create the bureau. The stated purpose of the bureau, the commissioners said, was to establish a place of work for a trail ranger and security at the County Office Complex on Kelly Road.

Commissioners Jim Stakem, Bob Hutcheson and Dale Lewis all said then they had no intention of taking the road patrol from Goad.

The commissioners’ action, Atkinson said, “was nothing more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Atkinson said if he is elected, “we need to go back to the way we were. Just change the name” of the Bureau of Police.

“We can’t do it overnight,” he said.

Atkinson places the issue in the top three of his list of priorities. Striplin didn’t rate the issue but agreed it is “an important” one.

“It’s fractured a lot of this community,” Striplin said.

Striplin said much of the discontent could have been avoided if the commissioners had been up-front about their intent. The expansion of the Bureau of Police and transfer of the road patrol should have been put to a referendum at the beginning.

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have two agencies,” said Striplin, who questioned whether having the two agencies saved any money.

Merkel agreed the commissioners should have been forthcoming from the start.

“I just don’t like the way things went,” Merkel said.

But there’s more to Merkel’s stance.

“I cannot see paying two top law enforcement officers for doing the same job,” Merkel said. “The sheriff was elected to do the whole job, not just the jail and courthouse (security).”

Merkel suggested J. Robert Dick should have stayed retired after leaving his position as chief of the Cumberland Police Department and also questioned whether savings were realized.

“Anybody in their right mind knows you cannot run two police agencies ... for the same price or less,” Merkel said.

Taccino said he wouldn’t have made the change. Whatever happens with the next set of commissioners needs to ensure taxpayers are getting “the best bang for their buck,” he said.

Taccino said it’s important to determine why Goad was constantly over budget. Additional funding might have been necessary, he said.

One “can’t put a price” on a person’s safety, Taccino said.

DuVall said had county residents been able to vote on the issue, “we would not have the problems we have right now.”

“I want to merge the budgets (of the two police agencies) into one budget,” DuVall said, “under the duly elected sheriff.”

He’ll ask the delegation to submit legislation for a referendum.

“I realize that’s two years (away), but it will finally be put to rest. That’s the only way it’s going to get done.”

Hedrick, meanwhile, said emotion should be removed from the issue. He said he understood the commissioners “had to do something” to control the budget.

“We all have budgets,” Hedrick said. “There’s only so much money in the cash register.”

Hedrick said there’s simply “not room for two agencies.”

“There should have been a referendum,” Hedrick said. “I’d move to make it go back.”

Hedrick made a point of emphasing that he felt the bureau officers “are doing a fine job” and called Dick, the bureau chief, “one of our premier leaders.”

“I just don’t believe a county that’s losing population can afford two agencies,” Hedrick said. “I just don’t think we can move forward with that.”

Kevin Spradlin can be reached at kspradlin@times-news.com.

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