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Willmar City Council backs filling police officer, engineering openings

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council voted Monday night to fill a police department patrol officer position and an engineering department technician/surveyor position.

Although the city has a hiring freeze due to state aid cuts late last year, this year and projected in 2010, the council approved staff recommendations to fill the positions.

The patrol officer position will open because an officer will be promoted from within the detective division to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Sgt. John Kappers.

The technician/surveyor position opened after Kristopher VanDyke resigned in June.

The requests to fill the positions were first approved by the council's Labor Relations Committee.

Council member Bruce DeBlieck asked why the patrol position is being filled.

Committee Chairman Steve Ahmann said the question was good.

"I think public service and the people of our community deserve the best when it comes to the police force and I don't think cutting back in the police force is something we should be doing at this time,'' Ahmann said.

"If I was told by staff or administration that crime warrants more police officers, I would somehow find something in the budget to deal with that need,'' he said. "In this case, we haven't had complaints from the citizens saying we're not lacking with the service that the police department does and I'd like to keep it that way. By doing this, we'll maintain our same level of service, which I think is quite excellent.''

Council member Denis Anderson said the council would not be increasing the budget.

"We're filling a vacancy and probably when it's all said and done there'll be a lesser cost for the new rookie officer as opposed to what somebody has been making in the past,'' he said.

In a memorandum, Police Chief Jim Kulset said he realizes the city is in a difficult position, but wrote the department has a history of making reasonable budget requests.

He said the Police Commission voted June 8 to recommend the city promote a sergeant and hire an officer to fill the vacancy.

Kulset said the department handled more complaints from citizens, made more arrests, investigated more crimes and complex crimes in 2008 than in 2007. In the past as economic times get more difficult, the department tends to see an increase in activity, he said.

He said the department is focusing on education and prevention, and aggressive enforcement has kept the city relatively safe in recent years.

During the past 10 years, he said, the city has not seen the violence of the 1980s and 1990s that led in part to an increase of nine officers. He said the two officers added in the last 10 years came with long-term funding sources.

Public Works Director Mel Odens wrote in a memorandum that the surveyor position is essential to his department's daily operations. The position is responsible for all surveying activities that include about a dozen different tasks.

According to Odens, the tasks of surveying and construction inspection related to street work can be funded through the street improvement budget.

Council member Ron Christianson asked about the importance of the position. City Administrator Michael Schmit said the technician does survey work in preparation for design and construction of the following year's spring and summer projects.

"We kicked this one around every which way and we always came back to the point that we really needed to fill this position,'' he said.

If the position were not filled, Schmit said, the engineering budget would be adjusted to compensate for hiring local surveyors, which cost about the same as hiring an employee with salary and benefits, and the staff member would be able to do other things as well.

Council member Jim Dokken said he voted during the committee meeting against filling the position, but indicated he changed his opinion after talking to Odens. Odens said the department is already three staff members short. Odens said no one in the department now can do the survey work without sending someone to school.

Schmit said the city-wide organization has four vacancies and two will remain unfilled at this point.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150