GAULEY BRIDGE, W.Va. -- The Gauley Bridge City Council is considering downsizing its police force in the wake of last week's resignations of the police chief and two officers.
Over the past several years, residents of this Fayette County town have criticized the police department for its strong presence -- which many have said hurts local business.
Mayor Byron Winebrenner and the five-member City Council distributed surveys this month asking residents their opinions on how the town is operating -- including its police force.
One survey question asks, "Does our town need 24 hour-seven days a week police coverage?"
Last week, Police Chief Leonard Sean Whipkey submitted a letter of resignation. That same week, the West Virginia State Police confirmed it had seized files and computers kept by Gauley Bridge police under Whipkey's leadership as part of a yearlong investigation into the department's records. Two other part-time officers resigned early last month.
Winebrenner said the City Council had considered downsizing the force weeks before the three officers resigned.
Council members are split on the issue.
Winebrenner is leading one side against the idea, along with council members Ruth Neal and Jeremy Whiteside.
The constant police patrolling has virtually ended all criminal activity in the town of 614 people, Winebrenner said.
"We are, more or less, crime-free here, other than the occasional four-wheeler disturbing somebody or somebody drank a little more than he should and hit his wife," Winebrenner said. "I attribute that to the police."
However, City Councilman John Nicholas said he's in favor of looking at other options, such as operating with fewer officers or implementing a neighborhood watch. The money to support a six-member police force is just not in the town's budget anymore, he said.
"We are having a lot of budget problems -- and a lot of small towns are -- but look at towns similar to our size, such as Cowan and Webster Springs," Nicholas said. "They got one full-time officer and one part-time. The people I've talked to up there say their city doesn't have any more drug problems than we do."
Council members Gladys Kauff and Tom Morgan have expressed similar views.
John and Candy Graves, who own Jarvis Pro Hardware in Gauley Bridge, have attended recent council meetings, asking its members to look into the police effects on the town.
Outsiders perceive Gauley Bridge as a speed trap, Candy Graves said.
In the past four years, police in Gauley Bridge have issued more than 6,000 speeding tickets. That's more than any other city or town in the state, according to the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles.
Morgan pointed to the closing of the Foodland, the town's only grocery store, early last month as evidence of the police's negative effects. Customers simply don't come to Gauley Bridge because they can't afford $100 speeding tickets, he said.