Sheriff to cover Sorrento policing

With the end of the town Police Department’s liability insurance coverage just six hours away, the Town Council voted 5-0 on Tuesday to select a last-minute option offered by Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley to provide protection to Sorrento at no cost through Dec. 31.

Although the decision effectively shuts down the Sorrento Police Department, Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr., said he agreed “100 percent” with the sheriff’s plan.

“I certainly want to thank the sheriff for stepping up to the bat for us,” Theriot said. “I mean, we were going to work this out whichever way we could, but with him coming in and saving us the money, it’s going to help this town out. I certainly compliment him.”

Theriot, who was just elected to a fourth, four-year term that does not expire until June 30, 2017, said he will work with Assistant Police Chief Ricky Smith to revamp the police department’s policies and procedures in hopes of reinstating the department after Jan. 1.

The Police Department’s three other officers have already resigned and a fourth is out on worker’s compensation, Theriot said.

The Town Council’s decision Tuesday ends a contentious month of public infighting among council members and Mayor Mike Lambert.

The struggle began when the town’s former insurance provider, Risk Management Inc., informed officials in an Oct. 21 letter it was canceling its liability insurance coverage for the Police Department and the department’s vehicles effective midnight Nov. 19, citing the department’s excessive number of claims, officials have said.

Theriot warned the Town Council he would not let his officers work without liability insurance.

The Police Department scrambled to find a company that would provide coverage but only received one quote: a $67,692 annual liability insurance policy from Beard Insurance & Financials, of Baton Rouge. Risk Management had charged the town $30,000 annually for its insurance, Lambert has said.

The only other option initially available was to turn police protection over to the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office at a cost of $37,521 for six weeks from Nov. 19 through Dec. 31.

Council members tabled, or postponed, voting on either option, during a special meeting Nov. 16 after the audience became rowdy, council members argued with each other and Lambert yelled at a town police officer.

Addressing the town council and more than 30 members of the public crammed inside the small Town Hall meeting room, Wiley said he decided he wanted to give town officials another option that would allow them additional time to receive more insurance quotes.

“This town has been divided for some time now,” Wiley said. “I feel like clearly there was evidence of a continued division and when you have that, the town image suffers and the town services suffer and guess who suffers most — the people who live here,” Wiley said.

With Sorrento poised to expand due to industrial and commercial growth, businesses “have to know this is a safe town,” Wiley said. “I’m going to offer the same service through the calendar year and I will do it on your tax monies that you pay me.”

Further police protection after the new year will have to be negotiated if town officials want it, Wiley said.

“I think it’s a deal you can’t refuse now because it doesn’t cost you anything,” Wiley said. “It would buy you some time to do things in a more orderly way and a more common-sense way.”

In an email sent by Wiley to council members Tuesday, Wiley said that in the past two years, the town of Sorrento has brought in an average of $110,000 per year from taxable value millage remittance to the Sheriff’s Office.

These monies fund civil processing including serving papers, seizures and foreclosure sales, court security for the Town of Sorrento court docket, jail staffing, property tax collection and other services, Wiley said in the email.

Lambert, who campaigned for the mayor’s seat on a platform of dismantling the town police department, said he was “very satisfied” with how events turned out Tuesday.

“If revamping the Police Department is in the best interest of Sorrento, then we’ll do it,” Lambert said after the meeting. “If it’s not, then we’ll go with the sheriff.”

Lambert also apologized for his behavior at the Nov. 16 meeting.