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Willmar PD seeks hiring increase in 2019

WILLMAR -- When Willmar Public Schools opened Lakeland Elementary School in December 2017, the district approached the Willmar Police Department about bringing in a school resource officer, who would spend time throughout the week at each of the ...

Erica Dischino / TribuneWillmar Police Officer James Venenga, who serves as a school resource officer, teaches a D.A.R.E. class at Kennedy Elementary School. The department is seeking to add another officer in order to fully staff the school resource officer positions in the Willmar Public Schools.
Erica Dischino / Tribune Willmar Police Officer James Venenga, who serves as a school resource officer, teaches a D.A.R.E. class at Kennedy Elementary School. The department is seeking to add another officer in order to fully staff the school resource officer positions in the Willmar Public Schools.

WILLMAR - When Willmar Public Schools opened Lakeland Elementary School in December 2017, the district approached the Willmar Police Department about bringing in a school resource officer, who would spend time throughout the week at each of the three elementary schools, the department was happy to do it.

"We saw a huge benefit having that officer in the schools," said Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt. There are three Willmar Police Department officers who serve as school resource officers already in the schools, one each at the Area Learning Center, the Willmar Middle School and the high school.

However, taking a single officer from patrol to fill the new elementary post caused a ripple effect throughout the department. The remaining officers found themselves stretched thin, especially since the department is currently down to 31 active officers because of retirements, medical leaves and new hires still in training. The department is budgeted for 34 officers.

"It has been very taxing for our department," Felt said. "Patrol is the true backbone of our department."

Following a discussion with the city administrator, Felt requested the hiring of a new officer in 2019, which would bring the total to 35 when at full strength. Without this extra officer, Felt said, he believes the department will have to pull the school resource officer position from the elementary schools to make sure the rest of the department is staffed adequately.

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The estimated total for the new officer is $117,000, which includes wages, benefits, insurance and paid holidays. About half of that would be reimbursed by the school district. The school reimburses the city for the school resource officers' wages and benefits while they are working in the schools, about 175 days a year, Felt said.

Despite Felt's reasons for needing the new officer, when Mayor Marv Calvin presented his draft 2019 budget earlier this month, the additional police officer was not part of it. At the time Calvin said he did not support the addition.

But, at Monday's meeting of the Willmar City Council, Calvin said he made the call without understanding the ramifications. He said he didn't know the Police Department had been at full staff in March, before the retirements went into effect, and he was also unaware the elementary school resource officer would probably have to be taken away if a new officer was not approved.

"Those are two troubling things," Calvin said. "I just maybe didn't have the right information when I made the recommendation. I feel kind of bad about that."

Several community members spoke during the open forum portion of the City Council meeting Monday to share their opinions on the matter.

"It is about building relationships with these young students," said James Venenga, who is one of the three school resource officers. "I'm there, I'm out there, I help teach whenever I can."

The school resource officers also provide an extra layer of safety and security for both staff and students, especially in this era of school violence.

"I don't want you to take the safety of our students and employees in this district and turn it into a budget cut," said Lisa Molacek, who works at the Area Learning Center.

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There was support for the school resource officers from both the public and council.

"It even goes beyond the safety of kids in the school. All of them spoke on the relationship building of the police officers with the students and that carries over for years and years," Councilor Julie Asmus said.

Calvin requested the City Council take a look at adding the additional officer back into the budget.

"Can we work within the parameters of the budget and move things around?" Calvin asked. "This is a council direction at this point."

While no official action was taken on the request, the council asked that the mayor, along with city staff, see what could be possible.

"See if we can't find some funds in the budget to keep that position," Asmus said. "The taxpayers spoke."

Related Topics: WILLMAR CITY COUNCIL
Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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