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Rushford approves third officer unanimously

By Kirsten Zoellner

Fri, Dec 13th, 2013
Posted in Rushford Government

After two months of discussion and the item brought before the council on three occasions, with at least one decision ending in a deadlocked 2-2 vote, the city council approved the hiring of a third, full-time police officer. The city has held a third position for over a decade. In the wake of a resignation from former officer Chris Frick, Chief Adam Eide sought to move part-time officer Wade Anderson into the position. At the November 12 meeting, Councilor Vern Bunke asked the council to step back and evaluate the need before locking the city into a union contract. The debate has continued since.

In an open letter to Chief Eide, Bunke cited the point of the discussions as two topics. One, “An appropriate level of patrol provided for the safety of all City of Rushford taxpayers.” According to Bunke, patrol options included “use of three full-time officers and relying on a minimum usage of part-time officers to complete the patrol schedule,” “use of two full-time officers and a heavier reliance on use of part-time officers,” and “use of additional community resources as they are available to assist the officer on duty.” This last option brought its own share of debate.

Community members, business members, local business owners, and members of local emergency personnel all noted that while community involvement and safety support is beneficial, it may not measure up to or replace police service. However, increased public support is a goal of both the city and the police chief to gain ‘multipliers’ to police efforts.

Bunke’s second point of discussion, “Significant savings attained with wise management of time and efforts that reflect fiscal responsibility to the citizens,” also resonated with some.

Eide admitted that there is an initial savings in using part-time officers in lieu of a full-time officer, but said there were more points to consider that would quickly eroded those potential savings. Without having to hire another full-time officer, the city would need additional 6-8 part-time officers, bringing the department to 10-12 part-time positions to compensate for scheduling. With Rushford’s lower wage scale and part-time officers typically looking for full-time placement, the turnover is high and each officer that leaves then triggers the process over again with new candidates, according to City Administrator Steve Sarvi. Added training, equipping, physical and psychological testing of each candidate will then further erode the savings.

“These part-time people are fresh out of college. They have debt, and they’re looking to get their license activated,” added Eide. “Full-time people will have a lot of contacts with people in the community. They live with these people, their kids go to school together, go to church together, and see each other at the store. There’s more ownership in the community than someone who wants to get a start here and then leave here.”

“Through the letter from Mr. Bunke, I learned a lot,” noted Eide. “He’s smart and dedicated to saving the taxpayers’ time and money. We’re on the same page, I think, but we still have to provide for services.” Again, Eide put forth a recommendation for promoting Wade Anderson to full-time officer. “There are just too many hours in a day. A third officer adds stability.”

Bunke insisted he wasn’t against a third full-time officer, but that the window to review the need was present. “I appreciate the effort you put in. I learned a lot from our discussions and understand the position it puts the department in to train up. The discussion, while uncomfortable, has been good.”

Councilor Mark Honsey also acknowledged the benefit of the discussion. “Going through this, I have had people question our decisions and some appreciate that we’re not rubber stamping this. But, I have not had one person tell me we shouldn’t have a third officer. I think that’s a testament to the chief and to this council. Maybe we over-analyze it, but they do want us to look at it.”

“What I’m going to say probably isn’t going to come out right. I don’t know how to phrase it, except to say I don’t want to hamstring the department. We have some flexibility coming into 2014 and some time. There needs to be a continued, genuine effort to provide the most cost effective service of policing as possible. If we have an agreement, then I feel comfortable with the arrangement,” noted Bunke prior to the vote. “I don’t want to hamstring you, and never have, but the public needs to know that their tax dollars are being used as wisely as possible.”

Mark Honsey made the motion to accept the chief’s recommendation of hiring Wade Anderson full-time. Mayor Chris Hallum seconded the motion. Following the unanimous decision Bunke noted his thanks to all who contributed their thoughts to the discussion.

Leading into the discussion on budget and setting the 2014 levy, only one citizen was present to bring forth concerns to the council. The proposed levy is currently sitting at 2.02 percent, but the amount is not final. Final levy certification to the county is due December 23. “We can’t stay at zero forever,” noted Mayor Hallum, citing the levies of 1 percent in 2011 followed by no increase for 2012 or 2013.

While the city has definite options for the funds, either in levee work, the Highway 43 project, or other items, Sarvi noted there is a fine balance in funds. “We need to have just enough that we don’t get in trouble.” However, the audits of 2012 and 2013 both cited the city’s need to have a healthier general fund balance. Previously sitting around 11 percent, it is up to near 20 percent in 2013. Still, the target amount is 40-60 percent. “It’s only paid a couple of times per year and there can be long stretches in there.”

“I think it’s worth noting that the last four years, our expenses have come in under budget; and it’s not a thousand or two that we’re coming in under,” added Councilor Honsey. “We’re doing our part to steward the money.”

However, Sarvi noted that some of the savings that the city has had may not present themselves as opportunities in the future. “There are quite a few unknowns. The more we cut back; it’s just going to allow less resources in the future if other issues come up.”

Not surprisingly, Councilor Bunke offered up a recommendation for cutting the city budget. “I wouldn’t mind setting it down 5 percent,” he quipped. When asked where the funds to operate the city would come from after cuts, Bunke added, “Want to leave that to me or to staff? I think we can do it. The extra $25,000 from the state, we can start right there. I believe there are circumstances that will allow us to go lower.” The cut would amount to approximately $37,000. “I think it’s the right thing to do; set it at a workable number. I have confidence we could do that on behalf of our citizens. Push it as low as we can and then challenge them to work with it.”

Mayor Hallum, clearly not in agreement with Bunke’s recommendation, acknowledged that he felt the city could responsibly do 0 percent. “It would be a good exercise for staff, but we’ve held this for two years. There are not many things that stay static for four years running.”

The council voted 3-2 in favor of having city staff prepare a reduced budget from last year’s $740,000 levy amount. The 5 percent reduction would set the levy for 2014 at a potential $703,000.

In other news, the city also received an updated report on levee recertification from Josh DeFrang of Otomo Engineering and Dave Lombard, representing the Public Works Department. Most notably, the city which was applying for the SWIFT program, will now be managed at a state level. The city has some unacceptable items, but largely items are minimally acceptable or acceptable and progress on the items is continued on a regular basis. Thorough documentation of work needing to be done and its completion is being documented by both Otomo Engineering and Public Works.

The next regularly scheduled council meeting is Monday, December 23, at 6:30p.m., at city hall. The public is encouraged to attend.

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