Lake County sheriff’s $860,800 boat proposal sunk again by commissioners

Commissioners once again torpedoed a request from Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez to purchase a boat for Lake Michigan costing more than $775,000 despite the sheriff’s department finding a grant that would fund 75% of the cost.

A motion to approve the purchase of the $860,802 for the boat from Safe Boats International made by Commissioner Kyle Allen Sr., D-Gary, failed Wednesday for a lack of a second from either Commissioner Michael Repay, D-Hammond or Jerry Tippy, R-Schererville, both of whom raised concerns with the purchase.

Martinez via email Wednesday said commissioners continue to put “public safety at risk by blocking the acquisition of an essential piece of equipment — equipment for which 75% of the initial cost is paid for through grant funding.”

Martinez first attempted to purchase the boat in the summer of 2021 for $770,060 with funds from within the department. He previously said the department had been looking to purchase the Metal Shark boat because of the age of the department’s current boats — a 1994 Silver Ships 35-foot Endeavor and a 2013 Silver Ships 29-foot Ambar. The Endeavor’s top speed is 30 mph, and the Ambar’s top speed is 50 mph, he said.

The new Metal Shark Defiant, a 38-foot vessel that can reach 60 mph, would replace the Endeavor, Martinez said. The new boat would take eight to 12 months to build once the order is placed.

The purchase repeatedly was deferred after commissioners raised some of the same issues that sank the request this time around. The sheriff’s department was forced to request the transfer approved by the county council to pay for the boat be rescinded in January 2022.

Since that time, the cost of the boat has gone up. The sheriff’s department also found a grant from the Department of Homeland Security that would cover 75% of the cost, reducing its financial commitment to about $277,634, funds Lake County Police Chief Vincent Balbo said the department has on hand.

Repay has maintained throughout the process the purchase is a poor use of resources when looking at the entirety of the county. Even though the bulk of the purchase is funded by a grant and the sheriff has the money to cover the rest, funding the purchase of an asset is not the only concern, he said, adding operational costs, ongoing liability and stretching staff resources are all of equal concern.

If an officer is out on the lake, they are not patrolling unincorporated Lake County. Wherever an officer is placed impacts other areas. Having three officers on a boat for 12-hour shifts has to have an impact on patrol, he said.

“It must,” Repay said.

Martinez via email said the department has supported a Marine Unit for about five decades and it has never impacted the ability to provide essential services to include all unincorporated areas of Lake County.

“Our deployment of officers will not change without acquisition of the boat. It does not require additional officers. We will use existing personnel. Staffing has nothing to do with purchasing the boat,” Martinez said.

Tippy at the meeting said he has spoken to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for law enforcement on Lake Michigan, and the U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for water rescues, and while neither said anything negative about the sheriff’s department, they also did not claim a partnership.

“Do we have an agreement with those government entities,” Tippy asked.

Martinez via email said the department does not need a memorandum of understanding in order conduct law enforcement activities in cities and towns on the lake.

“It is the responsibility of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department to provide support to any agency within its jurisdiction in need of support or public safety assets,” Martinez said, adding the lack of written agreements between agencies is not unique to the sheriff’s department.

“Across the country, if there’s a law enforcement agency that’s in need, other law enforcement agencies respond without a written agreement,” Martinez said.

Balbo at the meeting said the sheriff’s department is involved with drownings 100% of the time, and the department’s air and watercraft assist the Coast Guard from its East Chicago station. Balbo said the sheriff’s department provides assistance along the lakefront because they have limited or no access to the equipment and resources necessary to respond to water-related emergencies.

“We partner every week,” Balbo said, adding the sheriff’s department conducted more than 300 port checks in the past year with the Department of Homeland Security.

Martinez in the email said the department works with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to patrol and protect critical infrastructure including the steel mills and Port of Indiana. The department receives federal and state funding specifically for these routine patrols.

Tippy said he is concerned about liability exposure to the county in the absence of signed mutual agreements with the other law enforcement entities and the sheriff’s department. He also questioned whether agreements existed with the cities that are on the Lake Michigan coastline like East Chicago and Gary.

“I’d be kind of surprised any attorney would say you don’t need an agreement in case something goes wrong,” Tippy said.

He also questioned whether any communities along the lakeshore participate in bearing any of the cost for the patrols. East Chicago charges the sheriff’s department to house its boats in its marina.

Martinez said funding from everyone who pays taxes in Lake County supports the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.

“The entirety of Lake County is within the sheriff’s jurisdiction, including the Lake Michigan shoreline,” Martinez said. The department does not pay the city of East Chicago or the marina for use of the marina, boat slips or the building. The sheriff’s department does pay for utilities directly to the utility companies.

Even though state law allows the sheriff’s department to make special purchases, Tippy said grant money is still taxpayer dollars and officials should have some assurance the right amount of money is being spent on the purchase.

“Those are just a few of the issues I have,” Tippy said.