In a lot of ways, it’s pretty remarkable that the Riley County Police Department’s basic structure has remained unchanged for nearly a half-century.
It was odd when it was set up, and it remains highly unusual. It continues to creak here and there — arm-wrestling over service in a small corner of Pottawatomie County is the latest example — but it continues to work pretty well.
The basics are these: The Manhattan police department was consolidated with the Riley County Sheriff’s Office in 1974 to create the RCPD. There’s no elected sheriff anymore; the director who runs the outfit also doesn’t report to any boss at the city or county administration. Rather, he answers to a combined board of city and county commissioners, plus the county attorney and some appointed citizens.
The operation is funded 80 percent by the Manhattan city government and 20 percent by the Riley County government. Taxpayers who live in the city — and therefore pay tax to both entities — are carrying nearly the entire load. Taxpayers who live in the unincorporated county are getting a pretty inexpensive deal.
The recent question has been about service in the portion of Manhattan that lies in Pottawatomie County. That’s another oddball local fact — the area near Wal-Mart is across the county line. Businesses in that area pay city property taxes, so they’re paying a higher portion of the RPCD bill than, say, a business in northern Riley County, which would pay only the county tax.
What’s odd, of course, is that Riley County taxpayers are paying in part to provide service in another county, and Pottawatomie County doesn’t pay anything for that, even though the service obviously reduces the burden on that county’s sheriff’s department. On the other hand, as outgoing Pottawatomie County Commissioner Travis Altenhofen pointed out this week, Pott County businesses in that area are still paying proportionally more than a business in unincorporated Riley County.
How to figure all this out? It starts with discussion, which is obviously already underway. It needs some guideposts, which will probably involve an opinion by the Attorney General’s office, since the RCPD was established by state statute. And from there it’s really just a mathematics question: How to split up the costs equitably, starting from the important point of view that all the entities of government are serving the same taxpayers in the same region.
No problem with airing differences. But let’s take the next step. The RCPD system has worked pretty well for a long time. It can be tweaked to endure for much longer.