A standing-room crowd packed the Municipal Center meeting room for a public hearing Tuesday night on the future of the Winnebago Police Department.
“I would hate to see the police force disbanded and go to Blue Earth,” says former City Council member Rick Johnson. “I’m absolutely 100 percent against that.”
Since January, Police Chief Eric Olson has been the department’s lone officer and city leaders are concerned about police coverage. Being unable to hire officers to get the force back to three full-time officers has also been a problem.
Council members are considering raising officer wages as a way to attract more applicants. Another option would be to dissolve the department and contract with another area department.
One resident says he and his wife moved from Mankato, where they have a lot of police officers and more crime than Winnebago.
“We have a good life here. Don’t mess it up,” he says. “Don’t get rid of the cops, we need them.”
Blue Earth has submitted a proposal to charge the city $355,561 a year beginning in 2024 to provide coverage from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. The department’s current budget is $366,886.
Maintaining a police department drew strong support from a majority of those in attendance, including Fire Department Chief Jesse Haugh and Ambulance director Cari Jenkins.
Haugh says police backup is important when volunteers firefighters respond to a call.
“We need someone in town. The way it has been running right now, it’s not working. Period,” he says. “Whatever you got to do. Whatever conversations you have to have, please get the coverage back as quickly as you can.”
Jenkins says most of her department’s crew members are female and she has fears of putting them in danger.
“We have been placed in some scary situations. We need to be guaranteed that police coverage,” she says.
City Administrator Judi Hynes, who was attending a conference, presented cost estimates via Zoom if proposed wage increases were implemented.
Hynes says an initial increase of $52,305 to the department budget has been reduced to $44,892. She says the tax increase for a home with a fair market value of $100,000 would go from $1,300 a year to $1,368.
Mayor Scott Robertson says 37 cents of every $1 the city spends goes to the police department. He says there aren’t a lot of cuts that can be made to the city’s budget.
“We all took an oath to do what is best for this town,” he says. “That’s what we are planning to do with your help. We’re in a jam.”
Council member Calvin Howard says increasing officer pay could have the negative effect of putting the city’s pay equity out of compliance, meaning that the tax levy could be even higher,
The city would face a fine of $100 a day, he says, until the wages of other workers are adjusted. Grants the city receives for infrastructure projects and Local Government Aid could also be affected.
“That’s my number one concern,” he says. “I don’t want a snowball effect with the wage and tax increases. Then the pitchforks come out and you guys come after us when the taxes come around.”
One resident pointed out that Winnebago is not the only town that is having problems hiring officers. She says Albert Lea has been struggling to fill vacancies.
“We need to be careful with what we do and we’re just going to have to be a little patient,” she says.
Another resident says he doesn’t think raising taxes to pay for wages increases is a good idea.
“I don’t get how it is going to bring people to Winnebago to pay for that,” he says.,
Council member Jean Anderson says in addition to wage increases, the city may have to offer financial incentives that could be used for housing expenses.
“The bottom line is, I am not ready to give up on our community. We have to figure out a way to keep our police force,” says Anderson.
At the urging of those in attendance, council members agreed to gather more information and details regarding Blue Earth’s proposal and to present it at another public hearing.