Winnebago City Council says thanks, but no thanks to Blue Earth.
Without taking a vote, council members at Wednesday night’s special meeting decided to keep the city’s police department and not contract with another law enforcement agency for services.
“I just want to squash this whole thing,” says Council member Chris Anderson. “I don’t want to hear anything more about this. We need to put this to rest.”
Since May, city officials have been considering having Blue Earth provide police coverage.
Under the latest proposal, the cost annually would be $369,680 for 17 hours a day or $407,037 for 20 hours a day. Police Chief Eric Olson would be based in Winnebago and be hired as an officer, after being told he would be the assistant chief.
Olson has been the city’s lone officer for the past seven months and has been unable to fill two full-time vacancies in the department.
For several months an officer asked for a pay raise, says Olson, but did not get one and left to work for the sheriff’s department.
Unable to fill two vacancies in his department, Olson was told to find options and that is when he contacted Blue Earth.
When asked what he would like to see happen, Olson responded, “I think we should keep our police department… I believe this department can survive, we can get through this.”
Mayor Scott Robertson and council member Paul Eisenmenger stressed to the large crowd in attendance that contracting with Blue Earth for services was not the council’s idea.
Robertson says criticism and comments on social media have become way too personal.
“I don’t appreciate being called a monkey,” he says. “I don’t like it. We’re trying to do the best for Winnebago, this isn’t something we dreamt up.”
City Administrator Judi Hynes estimates the 2024 public safety budget would be $419,438 to maintain the police department. That would be about $12,000 more than Blue Earth’s proposal.
However, many residents at the meeting had no problem in having to pay the extra $12,000.
“When you’re spending $400,000, 10 grand is not a big difference,” says Makayla Nepp, a Winnebago Ambulance EMT. “Why would you send all that money to a different community? I do understand saving money, but we also have to be wise as to who those dollars affect.”
Members of the audience were concerned that the annual cost to contract with Blue Earth is not guaranteed to remain stable.
“We are at the mercy of what Blue Earth chooses to charge us, and it’s not guaranteed in any shape or form,” says a resident.
In June, the council approved increasing the wages for officers as a way to attract more applicants. Wages for step one were increased up to $30.29 per hour, while step 7 — the top scale — was increased to $36.50 per hour.
Olson says the higher wages helped attract applicants and currently two candidates are going through a background check.
“Within five days I got my first application,” he says. “Within two weeks, I got another application.”
Robertson says the two candidates are a “game changer” and the public’s message was clear.
“We hear you. I guess we got applicants,” he says. “Let’s see what washes out and go forward and see if we can get somebody on the streets to patrol Winnebago.”