Small Iowa Towns Turn to Sheriff for Protection
By Steve Gravelle, Reporter
LINN COUNTY, Iowa - Few of Iowa’s smallest towns have a police department, but they’re still covered.
State law requires incorporated communities to provide law enforcement either through their own police department or a contract with another agency — the county sheriff’s office, in most cases.
The state Department of Public Safety lists 319 city police departments. Jessica Lown, the agency’s spokeswoman, said the agency’s list likely doesn’t include all local departments, but comparing it against the state’s 947 incorporated communities means more than 600 towns contract for their law enforcement.
That number has grown over the past 20 years as costs and manpower demands rise. In Linn County, Center Point, Coggon, Palo, and Springville have all disbanded their police departments since 1980, Sheriff Brian Gardner said.
Palo was the most recent, shutting down its one-man department after the June 2008 flood.
“If you have just one officer, you beat him to death with calls,” Gardner said. “You really need to add at least two.”
Gardner estimates it would cost $300,000 to equip and staff small-town department with three officers, enough — barely — to cover officers’ days off.
“At 2,000 or so, you’re a large enough enterprise that you can afford it,” said Allan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities. “You have enough people so there’s a reasonable expectation you’d have your own police department.”
At 3,146 by the 2010 Census, Robins is probably among the smallest Iowa towns with its own police department. Tapping nearby larger departments to staff its eight-member force helps Robins keep its cost down.
The department costs city taxpayers $152,000 a year, $85,000 of that for salaries.
“If you don’t have (to pay for) this continuous training, the ability to use the resources of all the police departments the area, it’s very cost effective,” said Mayor Ian Cullis.
“All our guys out here are part-time,” said Police Chief Andy Humphrey, also a full-time Linn County sheriff’s deputy. He said Robins draws officers from Hiawatha, Cedar Rapids, the state Department of Corrections and Linn County.
Humphrey has been Robins’ police chief since 2004, when his predecessor was accidentally shot by another officer. The accident happened in the chief’s office as the officer was inspecting a handgun.
Officers work shifts in Robins “whenever the guys can fit it into their schedule,” Humphrey said.
“It’s a bedroom community, and our issues are pretty minimal,” said Humphrey. “The occasional rash of car break-ins, but usually it’s looking for change and CDs. That’ll go on for a week, two weeks then it’s over for a year.”
The city pays into officers’ Iowa Public Employee Retirement System accounts, but not their full-time departments’ retirement or health plans, Humphrey said.
More than twice Robins’ size, Grimes has repeatedly rejected plans to start its own department. The largest city in the state lacking its own police force, the Des Moines suburb of 8,246 will pay Polk County $622,672 for coverage this year, said City Administrator Kelley Brown.
“They take care of absolutely everything,” Brown said. “We’ve had a number of cities say, ‘how did you get to that point, and how do we get there? ”
Grimes also contracts for water and sewer service and shares its fire chief with a neighboring city. Brown said the sheriff’s contract has withstood repeated review.
“I’ve been here 18 years and probably every three or four years that comes up,” Brown said. After some study, “they recognize it was much more cost-effective for us.”
The Victor City Council came to the same conclusion this summer, deciding to renew its contract with the Iowa County Sheriff’s Office. The agreement, $94,859 a year for three years, calls for at least 40 hours of patrol weekly.
“The council was thinking the service had maybe outgrown the city, meaning maybe we didn’t need so many hours patrol,” said Fred Stiefel, Victor’s city clerk and city attorney. “The city was always happy with the sheriff’s service — it was strictly a cost thing.”
Victor and North English each contract for the 40-hour weekly minimum and are billed about what a single deputy costs, Sheriff Robert Rotter said.
“We just basically pass our costs on to them,” said Rotter. “If you have a going concern as far as your business district goes (and) schools and you’re not just a bedroom community, then we need to have kind of presence there.”
Smaller towns without significant business districts receive lesser levels of service for a charge of about $100 per capita. In Iowa County, that’s Ladora, Parnell, and Millersburg.
“We are still under a very, very old system that charges them per capita, which I think we’re going to pull away from in a year or two because it doesn’t cover our costs,” said Rotter. “But in their budgets, it’s probably a significant bill.”
Kemp, of the League of Cities, said law enforcement costs may indeed be a factor in the state’s smallest communities’ decisions to unincorporate, or dissolve as legal entities.
“If you get small enough the mere cost of services, whether it’s law enforcement or snow removal, just gets to be too much,” he said. “That does tend to put more pressure on the county sheriff. They’ve got this area they’ve been patrolling and they have to keep patrolling it” without the additional payment.
Linn County charges 11 towns $29 an hour for services. Gardner said Alburnett, Bertram, Center Point, Central City, Coggon, Ely, Fairfax, Palo, Prairieburg, Springville, and Walker are on contract for 8,680 total hours of service, for $251,730.
“It does not provide any problems for the department, it’s relatively inexpensive for the individual towns,” said Gardner.
Cities’ monthly patrol requirements range from 11 hours for Prairieburg to 108 hours for Ely.
“We almost always provide more hours to the communities than they contract with us,” Gardner said.
Johnson County deputies cover Hills, Lone Tree, Solon, Oxford, Swisher, Shuevyille, and Tiffin. Sheriff Lonnie Pulkrabek said his office bills monthly at $35 an hour, with each city setting its hourly needs, and makes a monthly report to each contracting town.
“Usually every year we exceed that (contract) requirement,” he said. “The deputies know where the town’s at, as far as the number of hours. We need to be out there for the rural residents as well.”
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