Tom Fletcher probably thought he had entered the Twilight Zone last week.
Fletcher, the newly designated Blue Earth police chief, was at the last Blue Earth City Council meeting to see if the council would affirm Mayor Rob Hammond’s appointment of the 13-year police officer to the vacant top-cop job.
The fact that the council easily made a 7-0 unanimous vote to confirm his appointment might have been surprising, but is not the Twilight Zone moment I am referring to.
Council members were given the opportunity to question the new chief and make comments.
Councilman John Gartzke told Chief Fletcher that he wants Fletcher’s former position – now vacant with the appointment of the new chief – to be filled as soon as possible. Turns out, that action was already in the works.
That still was not the Rod Serling-esque comment from the Twilight Zone. But Gartzke’s next comment was.
The councilman told Fletcher he wanted another police officer hired to replace the position that has been vacant for some time.
And, he said, he wanted to see yet another officer hired as well, which would take the current local law enforcement staff from three to six.
What makes this a Twilight Zone moment is the fact that this is something Fletcher and his fellow officers have been asking for for two years.
It has been the council that has declined to vote to fill those open spots, citing budget constraints and cuts in Local Government Aid payments from the state.
For Fletcher to have a councilman tell him to fill those open spots must have been a shock. I’m surprised I didn’t hear a cheer escape from his lips.
But hold on.
Gartzke wasn’t issuing an order to the new chief, he was simply making his wishes known.
It would take a majority vote by the entire council to actually allow the department to expand from its potential four members now, to five or six.
Hammond eventually ended the discussion by moving the issue of adding any police officers to the work session agenda at the next council meeting – Feb. 6.
Whether the council would agree to add officers to the department is anyone’s guess.
After all, it took months of debate just to decide whether to hire a new chief or not. And actually, the debate on just how many officers to have has been going on longer than that.
Once there were six officers, but as two moved on to other locales, their open positions were not filled.
Then the police chief retired and his spot was open too, which meant three officers working a lot of overtime hours and a whole lot of part-time cops were filling in to give the city 24-hour law enforcement coverage.
Gartzke says a city the size of Blue Earth needs at least five full-time officers in order to have this 24/7 coverage, plus the two officers on duty Friday and Saturday nights.
(The council had earlier planned to cut that extra officer for 2012, but decided to keep it after incident numbers showed the extra officer was needed.)
The issue now, however, is that it is 2012 and this year’s budget and levy has been set.
Discussion on how many officers the police department needs was a topic during the budget talks last fall, and it was set at four.
Adding another one or two now means an adjustment to the budget (currently in place) would have to be made.
And an adjustment to the levy is not possible.
It was in this column last fall that it was noted that the City Council was going to lower the levy from the previous year. That is all well and good, but the suggestion was that the levy could be left the same, with zero increase, and the extra funds be used to, say, add an extra police officer.
Decisions are going to have to be made.
Does the city want 24/7 police coverage? That seems to be a community and council consensus of opinion.
Is it better to run a police department with part-time officers, or hire an additional full-time person? Which one makes more sense, both financially and for the health and safety of the officers and the community?
Can the expense of a new officer (or two) actually be included into the 2012 budget, currently in use?
All good questions, which will need to be looked at by the council – with input from Fletcher, we hope.
After studying the issues and getting answers to the questions, the council can make the best decision.
We just hope that decision comes quicker than the choice for police chief did.