With Jefferson PD on ropes, council takes action

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The Jefferson City Council, seen here at the July 14 meeting, moved Tuesday night to raise wages for Jefferson Police Department officers.

JEFFERSON, Iowa — More than 50 persons attended the Jefferson City Council meeting Tuesday, including officers of the Jefferson Police Department, Greene County Deputy Sheriffs, Iowa State Patrol Troopers who live in Jefferson, Greene County EMTs and Jefferson firefighters, but only two people in the audience spoke.

The large attendance was there for a discussion about the Jefferson Police Department. Staffing in the department is at a critically low point, and the city is considering entering into a 28E agreement with the Greene County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement.

With no input from the public and without comment from Jefferson Mayor Matt Gordon, who encouraged the large attendance via a post on social media, the council approved a motion directing city staff to begin negotiating a new union contract immediately and to expedite the process. The new contract will go into effect as soon as possible, that is, during the current fiscal year.

The city’s contract with the local AFSCME unit expires June 30, 2021. Without the council action taken Tuesday, contract negotiations would begin several months from now. Jefferson Police Department officers — like all the city’s non-salaried, full-time employees — are covered by the contract with AFSCME.

Council member Harry Ahrenholtz read from a prepared statement to open the discussion. He is the senior member of the council, having served since 2014, and he defended the council’s record regarding the Jefferson Police Department.

Ahrenholtz began by confirming that he supports the Jefferson police department, “and I’d be very confident that all the council members here do, too,” he said. “More importantly, I think the citizens of Jefferson support and expect a fully functioning police department for this community.”

Jefferson has a population of about 4,500.

Ahrenholtz and other council members take their duties seriously, including “exercising good stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “That presents challenges and struggles, just as it does in any business and most households in our community.”

Ahrenholtz provided data for the past five years. Operating expenses for the police department have increased from $540,000 in 2015 to $840,000 in 2020, an increase of 55%, he said. That increase is “significantly” larger than in other city departments.

He said part of the larger percentage of increase is due to the number of employees in the department. With eight employees, the Jefferson Police Department has a larger staff than any other city department. Health insurance costs have “escalated dramatically,” he said, and that benefit impacts the police budget more than the smaller departments.

Ahrenholtz said the hiring incentive the city started in 2019 — a $2,000 sign-on bonus plus $200 a month in student loan payments for officers with a degree in criminal justice — has helped in hiring officers but not in retaining them. The police department has seen an 80% turnover since 2015, he said.

Ahrenholtz also said the city has made $190,000 in pre-planned capital expenditures in the last five years, and the council has approved non-budgeted items on an “as-needed” basis. The police department has also received supplemental funding from individuals, companies and grants, he said.

According to Ahrenholtz, new officers all know what the pay scale is when they are hired, and they know what it takes to achieve pay increases. They also know about the health insurance benefit, which covers the full cost of insurance for a single person and “the majority” of the cost for a family. They are familiar with the availability of overtime, of paid holidays (there are 11 for city employees), double-time holiday pay, paid vacation time and the city’s contribution to the Iowa Public Employee Retirement System (IPERS).

Base pay has been singled out as the primary cause for turnover in the police department. Base pat is specified in the union contract and cannot be changed without opening the contract.

Council member Pat Zmolek said the council’s police committee discussed the command structure of the police department but has not made a decision or recommendation. Discussions included various options for the department’s management team, such as retaining the current chief/captain structure or switching to a chief and two sergeants or a chief and one administrative assistant.

Zmolek said the committee also discussed with Jefferson Police Chief Mark Clouse the possibility of reinstating an officer reserve program. Reserve officers would enhance the department, not fill the role of officer. He said nothing will be done in that area until staffing problems are remedied.

Greene County Sheriff Jack Williams attended the meeting. He said the sheriff’s office could provide full coverage that would include everything the Jefferson Police Department does  now except animal control, or emergency coverage, which would include responding to domestic assaults or “actively ongoing crime.” Things like harassment would be logged and handled by the police department when an officer was on duty and available.

Williams said the sheriff’s office could provide emergency coverage for one 12-hour shift a day without adding a deputy. He would work shifts to help cover.

“The sheriff’s office as a whole wants to see the PD stay,” Williams said, “so we’re willing to stretch our limits a little bit to help you guys attain that goal (a fully staffed police department) at the end.”

Williams said it would take about a year to get back to full staffing.

“We definitely want to make sure it’s something temporary that assures the survival of the JPD,” council member Darren Jackson said.

Williams said he and the Greene County Attorney and Greene County Supervisors would like to meet with their Jefferson counterparts this week in order to begin drafting the needed 28E agreement that would outline the responsibilities the sheriff’s office will assume and the financial compensation.

Williams and Greene County Ambulance director Michelle Madsen were the only ones who spoke from the audience. Madsen read a statement that highlighted the importance of law enforcement in keeping ambulance staff safe in their work.

Mayor Matt Gordon said very little during the 30-minute meeting.

Victoria Riley is the editor and published of the Greene County News Online.