CROWN POINT — The Lake County sheriff's department is requesting $770,060 to purchase a new boat for law enforcement and public safety operations on Lake Michigan.
Vincent Balbo, chief of the sheriff's police, told the Lake County Council Thursday that one of the sheriff's two Lake Michigan patrol boats, originally built in 1994, is nearing the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced in the near future.
He said after speaking with Chicago police, and members of similar police marine units in the Midwest, he's confident the selected watercraft, a Metal Shark Defiant with a top speed of 60 mph, can withstand the rigors of operating on Lake Michigan and meet the varied needs of the sheriff's department.
"We have looked at a number of boats for that purpose that ranged up to $1.5 million," Balbo said. "Based on our responsibilities on the lake, we really believe that this purchase will better serve the citizens of Lake County for their safety and security."
Balbo told the council the sheriff's department is responsible for 26 miles of busy lake shore extending from the Illinois state line to Porter County.
He said the sheriff's police need equipment to respond to any eventuality, ranging from a commercial airliner plunging into the lake to boat sinkings to drownings, including Sunday's drowning death of a 20-year-old Illinois man near the Lake Street Beach in Gary.
"We were able to take care of business and conclude the operation within a very short period of time," Balbo said. "Yes, the Coast Guard will respond. But they'll respond from a distance. We have our people, real-time, on (the water)."
Scott Schmal, the council's finance director, said money to purchase the boat is available, since millions of dollars that normally would have been appropriated to the sheriff's office and other county departments during last year's budgeting process were held back in case of tax revenue shortfalls caused by COVID-19.
At the same time, Councilman Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said the $770,060 price tag for a boat definitely caught his attention, and he wondered whether his fiscally conservative Republican colleagues would support the purchase.
Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, said he does have some consternation, but he understands if it truly is needed to ensure public safety on the lakefront.
The seven-member council is due to vote July 15 on whether to fund the boat acquisition.
Actually purchasing the boat, under normal circumstances, would be a task for the three-member Lake County Board of Commissioners, which repeatedly has refused to consent to major equipment purchases, including other boats, requested by Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr.
However, the council is aiming to take control of county purchasing from the commissioners on July 26, absent a court order to the contrary, so the sheriff may have a better shot this time of actually getting the boat if the council authorizes the necessary spending.