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Rushford debates police staffing, coverage

By Kirsten Zoellner

Fri, Nov 29th, 2013
Posted in Rushford Government

Several Rushford residents turned out to address the council regarding the issue of police protection. Photo by Kirsten Zoellner

The ongoing issue over whether or not to fill the police department vacancy left by recently resigned, full-time officer Chris Frick continues to bring out public support and heated debate. Police Chief Adam Eide came before the council on November 12 to seek replacement for the position, but the recommendation was tabled to allow for further consideration. That conversation continued recently at a labor management meeting involving Mayor Hallum, Councilor Vern Bunke, Administrator Steve Sarvi, and Eide, but it was clear by the November 25 council meeting, little had changed in perception of a remedy to the problem.

In September of 2012, Eide came before the council, following direction from Bunke, regarding a plan for various community safety projects to bolster the police protection. “While all those projects are very good, admirable, effective, there’s still a bit of concern whether or not we’re doing as much as we can as a council and community to support our officers and public safety effort,” noted Bunke in reference to Eide’s plan. “The consensus is that the public might have to take greater ownership of public safety, while controlling cost. We need to look at all options available. We have a great crew in this town. It’s outstanding. At the same time, if we’re not diligent in looking at all of the options, openly and honestly, without accusation and emotion, then we’re not doing the right thing. I don’t have the answer, but I’m suggesting we look at every possible option before we nail ourselves down to the cost of a full-time officer.”

Mayor Chris Hallum, who recently took his opinions on the issue to local editorials, spoke increasingly in favor of Eide’s recommendation. “The one thing police department is; insurance. You have it when you need it. I don’t want there to be a need, but if something happens and there’s no cop on duty, great, I saved a dollar,” said Hallum.

“That’s an emotional response,” responded Bunke.

“It’s my opinion,” countered Hallum, “And you’re trying to cheapen it by saying it’s emotional. My viewpoint is as valid as yours.”

More than 15 citizens turned out to voice their opinion on the issue and they were just as passionate about their viewpoints. Several who work in emergency rescue, including Kenny Highum, a volunteer firefighter, and Lynn Humble, Rushford Ambulance Director, highlighted the convenience of having local enforcement on the scene. “When you pull up to a scene, it’s nice to have someone in blue there,” noted Highum. “The need is much more than it used to be.”

Humble echoed the sentiment. “We need a force that is seen. It’s nice to have someone from our town right there, rather than waiting 20 minutes for someone from the county or another department. You can’t put a price on someone’s life,” she stressed. “Neighborhood Watch is great, but we need to be able to call and know that we’ve got three guys full-time.”

Former Rushford Police Department members Steve Garret and Jack O’Donnell also noted their concerns. “I spent five years with Rushford force, and have 10 years in the field,” said Garrett, who is now with Houston County Sheriff’s Department. “My family chose to stay here. There’s a reason why Rushford is safe. Doing this amounts to roughly $5 per head per year. It’s worth it.”

“I’ve been involved with the police department for over 30 years, starting here in 1976 under Jay Sommers,” noted O’Donnell. “I would like to see a third full-time officer before more part-time. It’s a person better connected with the community. It’s the best way to go. There have been changes in police work since I started and the difference is night and day. It’s a better value with a full-time officer.”

Local business representatives also had their say. Eric Arneson, Kwik Trip manager, and Kim Rassmussen, who opens for Kwik Trip in the wee hours of the morning, both noted their support of a third full-time officer. “Saving money by cutting service isn’t the right decision. Put yourself in the place of victim of crime,” suggested Arneson. “One of the reasons this town is as safe as it is, is because it has an officer on duty at all times. What if it was you?”

“We need continued police protection in this town,” added Trisha Parrish, business director at Historic Bluff Country, a regional tourism entity. “We have a lot of projects next year. Depleting the police force is not the answer. We need the police protection. As for businesses, we need the coverage.”

“There’s a reason Rushford seems so and that we don’t need the police department and it’s because we’ve got ‘em. We’ve got the presence, the coverage, and that’s a big deal,” stressed Rushford Hypersonic owner Dan Fox. “As a businessman, it makes me feel good to have that and it should make the community feel good. It’s why Rushford can say we’re still a nice, safe community.”

Only one person in attendance, Maynard LaFleur, urged the council to keep a clear head in make a decision. “We need to figure out how many we need; a true figure.”

“I appreciate that the public came out and is willing to voice their opinions,” said Bunke. “This is not something to be taken lightly. We’ve talked about this for the last four years, constantly looking for ways to save the taxpayers money. If we can reach a consensus, and do it for less, why wouldn’t we do it? Now is the time to think about it,” he continued. “Once that employee is locked under union contract… that’s it. This is our window to look at it. Status quo doesn’t get you anywhere. All I’m saying is look at it. If 95 percent of people supported it, how much would that take off our police department?”

“In a perfect world, 95 percent would support it,” responded Councilor Mark Honsey. “That’s not the reality. All they know is when they call, they expect our service to be there. As a citizen, as a council member, I will not sacrifice service by saving a few dollars. It’s time for a discussion, but I think we should continue with a third officer.”

“On persons status quo is supporting what works,” added Mayor Hallum. “This works. At some point you’re not doing something new, you’re wrecking something good.”

The city has had three full-time officers since 2001 and since then, the city has grown considerably. According to clerk Kathy Zacher, growth has included at least 100 new houses and 10 new businesses. “I’m sure they would like protection. There was $17 million in flood recovery for downtown businesses. They’re going to want that protected,” she noted.

“By cutting hours, you’re opening yourself up for situations; a could have, should have, would have. If something happens, we’re not going to get that moment back,” stressed Eide. “I’ve served this community for close to 18 years. I don’t want anyone to get hurt on my watch. I feel like I’m in that movie Groundhogs Day. I was just here a year ago and we went through this, now we’re going through it again. I’m asking for the minimum. I’m not against other programs for our services and something for the community.”

Administrator Sarvi spoke to multiplier effects of the types of potentially money-saving programs Bunke has suggested. Essentially, these effects take place following efforts such as active community watches and increased police programs to heighten local presence and become part of the backbone of community safety. “It’s going to take time to build up these programs. How much better off would we be if every neighborhood had a watch? We’d be considerably safer, but is it likely that these play out? No, but if some do, all of these things add to making a better community,” Sarvi acknowledged.

“This is a good discussion and it’s probably key,” added Bunke, before adding caution. “To do the same as we’ve done in the past, just because it’s working, doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe it does to you, but it doesn’t to me. I wanted to have a good public discussion. The public in general, supporting our police; we need that in our town. Then, those multipliers take effect.”

“This is not a rubber stamp thing, Vern,” responded Councilor Honsey. “I have thought about this. There are times when you turn around and need something standing there. When I call, I want someone to be there.”

“This is the best thing for the city,” added a clearly frustrated Hallum, before making a motion himself to approve Chief Eide’s recommendation. Honsey seconded the motion.

After a calling for those opposed, and a moment of apprehensive silence, Bunke voted against the motion. A few moments after, Colbenson also voted opposed. With Councilor Robert Dahl notably absent from the meeting, the tie leaves the issue currently treading water, with no official decision made. According to clerk Zacher, it is likely Chief Eide will bring the item up for consideration at the next council meeting, December 9.

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