For now, the overall consensus of the City Council and residents who attended a meeting is to maintain the Winnebago Police Department.
During a work session held Tuesday night, council members discussed increasing wages as a way to recruit and hire new police officers.
“I have been told by one person that they wouldn’t have left the city if the wages were raised,” says Police Chief Eric Olson. “I would like to see the city try raising wages.”
“I have major concerns. Once you get rid of a police department it’s very hard to get back. You lose control. I am worried about this, if we did this, where would Winnebago end up,” he adds.
City Administrator Judi Hynes presented council members with proposed wage increases that would pay Olson $38 per hour and two new full-time officers with some experience $33.66 per hour.
Those just graduating from law enforcement school would earn about $31 an hour, up from the present $25.39. Part-time officers would earn an hourly wage of $28.84.
“It’s a significant wage increase in the police department budget,” says Hynes. “It would be another $52,305 increase in the budget to try and see if we can maintain our department here.”
Olson says he would like to have six months to see if he can hire officers at the higher wage levels being proposed.
Since June 2022, the city’s police force has consisted of Olson and one full-time officer.
As of January of this year, the police chief has been the department’s lone officer after Jacob Pettit was hired by the Faribault County Sheriff’s Department.
Olson told council members that a person hired in January has decided not to take the job.
The city has not been without full coverage, however, as part-time officers and Faribault County Chief Deputy Scott Adams have helped out until the city can hire officers.
Adams says because he and Pettit live in Winnebago they are able to assist Olson when needed.
“Mike (Sheriff Mike Gormley) and I have talked. We will support you until you get through it,” he says. “We have focused forces quickly here. We will come here and help, whatever you need. We’re here as a team.”
According to the city’s website, the police department consists of a police chief and two full-time officers.
“I don’t think it casts us in good light, not having police around,” says Mayor Scott Robertson. “We’re going to have to do something.”
Robertson says Blue Earth officials contacted the city to see if they would be interested in contracting for police coverage.
Robertson, Hynes and Council member Jean Anderson have met with Blue Earth Police Chief Tom Fletcher and city officials and have been offered a proposal.
Blue Earth would charge the city $355,561 beginning in 2024 to have police coverage from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. and Olson would become an employee of their department. Winnebago’s police department budget this year is $366,886.
Anderson says she’s concerned that if Blue Earth takes over policing duties, Winnebago loses control on what happens.
“Why are we going to spend basically the same amount of money and not have a say in the matter?” says Anderson. “Raising the wages would be great. I think we are worth it.”
Councilman Chris Anderson says the city needs to keep its police force, even if it means paying officers more.
“I don’t even want to entertain the idea about Blue Earth. They’re just going to screw everything up,” he says.
Councilman Paul Eisenmenger says Olson would likely lose his police chief position if Blue Earth takes over and he doesn’t think that’s fair.
He says after looking at wages offered by cities on the League of Minnesota Cities website wanting to fill vacancies, “It’s no wonder we can’t hire anybody.”
Council members decided to hold a special meeting beginning at 6:30 p.m. prior to the start of the May 9 council meeting at 7 p.m. to allow public input on the matter.