MINNEOTA - Most of the people speaking out at the Minneota City Council's regular meeting Monday night said they were in favor of keeping the city's police force the same size it is now, with two full-time officers. But council members, citing difficult budget decisions and worries about the city's future revenues, moved to cut one full-time police position in a 3-2 vote.
"No cuts are easy," Minneota Mayor Bill Ufkin told members of the public attending the meeting. However, he said, the possibility of cuts in the police department had been talked about for the past eight to 10 years. "It was something that needed to be looked at," he said.
A proposal to reduce the Minneota Police Department from two full-time positions to one full-time position and a part-time position was discussed at the council's February meeting, but council members decided to continue discussion in March, to allow time for public feedback.
The Minneota Police Department is currently made up of Police Chief Eric Johnson and Patrol Officer Ben Standahl. Members of the public at Monday's meeting included representatives of the Minneota Fire Department and Minneota Public School, as well as concerned citizens.
"Why did the council look at a public safety area to start cutting?" asked Wayne West. He also asked whether the estimated $30,000 in savings from the cuts took training costs for a part-time officer or officers into account.
Council members said there wasn't really a "first place" they examined for possible cuts, but public safety was a large enough part of the city budget to deserve consideration. While the costs of officer training for a part-time position hadn't been worked out, Ufkin said, neither had possible savings on vehicle or equipment costs.
Minneota Public Schools Superintendent Dan Deitte said the school's safety has benefited by having 24-hour police coverage, as well as having local officers available to take part in presentations or educational programs. Having full-time officers would also allow for more consistency during investigations, Deitte said.
Minneota resident Jack Jerzak said he was in favor of the cuts, rather than tax increases.
"I think it would be a big mistake," said resident Heather Moorse. "We're talking about the safety of our kids, the safety of our town."
Other local residents pointed out that city police have a faster response time than the county sheriff's department, and have often played a crucial role as the first responders at the scene of emergencies.
Minneota faces some difficult choices when considering budget reductions, Ufkin said. For example, he said, cutting back the city's annual budget of $15,000 for the Minneota Senior Center would likely mean losing the center. Streets and infrastructure, the municipal swimming pool, and the public library also require tens of thousands of dollars in city funding each year.
Council member Jerry Teigland said city taxes have also doubled since 1999. That rate of increase was "unsustainable," he said. He moved the city cut one full-time police position, and support the remaining full-time position with 20 hours a week of part-time coverage, starting in 60 days.
The council voted 3-2 in favor of the motion, with Ufkin, Teigland and Tim Koppien casting yes votes, and Terri Myhre and Mary Johnson casting the no votes.