Winnebago City Council got some bad news regarding efforts to fill vacancies in the police department at Tuesday night’s meeting.
City Administrator Judi Hynes says the city’s top choice for police chief who was undergoing a background check has withdrawn his application.
Also, two of the three applicants for two full-time officer positions are no longer interested.
The latest development to bring the police department to full staff drew predictable responses from two council members.
“It’s very frustrating,” says Council member Jean Anderson. “All this work, time and energy and the background checks adds to the frustration.”
Council member Paul Eisenmenger says, “I’m sick of it. I wish it was over. We’re having a heck of a time finding a regular officer, let alone a police chief.”
Mayor Scott Robertson says the council has two choices: Repost the police chief vacancy on the Minnesota POST board website or contract for services with the Blue Earth Police Department or Sheriff’s Department.
“To be fair to the citizens of Winnebago we need to have a date of when this ends,” says Robertson. “Are we going to fill it? You have to face reality after a while.”
Robertson and Eric Olson, former police chief and serving as the city’s Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO), suggest that offering incentives such as signing and retention bonuses could help in hiring and keeping officers.
“Incentive and retention bonuses, how many (local) departments are doing that?” asks Olson.
Robertson says he got the idea of offering a bonus after hearing Minneapolis is offering new hires a $15,000 signing bonus over three years.
“We’re not the only ones that are having this problem,” says Robertson. “Do we have to spice it up?”
Last June, council members increased wages for officers to attract applicants to fill two vacancies. They also increased the police chief’s hourly wage and agreed to give him six months to hire officers.
The result: several months later Olson resigned and went to work for the Sheriff’s Department and no officers have been hired.
Council member Calvin Howard says he’s not ready to give up in trying to keep the police department.
“We need to give it a little more time. I’d like to be able to say we gave it two solid rounds,” he says.
Anderson says some residents in the community have made it clear they want a police department and are willing to pay for it.
“We have to give it another shot,” she says “I’m not willing to give up on us yet.”
Council members asked Olson if officers could be hired without the city having a police chief.
Olson says officers can be hired because the city has a CLEO, so the council gave Hynes the go-ahead to set up an interview with the lone applicant so far. Another applicant is currently in the background check stage.
Council members also agreed to repost the police chief position on the POST board website with a new hourly wage range of $36.69 to $45.41, with pay depending on experience. The previous hourly rate was $33.25 to $36.50.
The city continues to advertise for full-time officers on the POST and city websites as well.