Local government

SCF Council leans toward police expansion

Greg Marsten | Staff writer
New K9 squad car and possible school-city liaison officer
ST. CROIX FALLS – The St. Croix Falls Common Council approved action leaning toward two important expansions of their police force at their most recent meeting, Monday, March 9.
One action was approval of pursuing a so-called COPS grant for three years, aiding in expansion of the police force with a liaison officer program at the school district.
The other council action was to allow the police chief to research and buy a canine-capable squad vehicle, signaling final support for a canine officer program in the city, led entirely by volunteer donations, grants and in-kind matches and services, with a goal of no added cost to the city.
That council approval assures that when they finally receive a canine officer, the department has a vehicle for its future four-legged officer, now that the canine program that appears to be coming to fruition and is nearly ready to go dog shopping.
According to Chief Erin Murphy, the COPS grant would cover up to $125,000 of the cost of the liaison program for three years, with the school district and city splitting the remainder of the cost and paying for things like offices, uniforms and a squad car.
“We can use our old, retired squad car for an officer,” Murphy said, noting that they kept a former Ford Taurus squad car from the past. “It didn’t have much value, that way there’s no cost to us for another squad.”
Murphy said the liaison officer would spend his/her time at the school district when school is open, and would supplement the city squad in the summers and when school is not in session.
”We would need to add an officer, with this being an assignment, generally for two-to three years rotation,” Murphy added. “They would supplement our work load, in our busiest months (over the summer).”
Murphy said there was no assurance they receive the grant, but they will know this summer if approved, and could implement the program next year, working with the school district.
“If we’re awarded, it would likely be a 2021 topic,” Murphy said.
The council voted unanimously in favor of the grant application, which may dramatically expand the city’s police department if approved, and would pay the bulk of the program for three years, with the city and school district sharing the cost for the fourth year, and able to decide if they want to continue the program for a fifth or subsequent years.
Separate from the school liaison issue was a proposal to allow Chief Murphy to purchase a new or used squad car/truck/SUV, outfitted for long-term canine use, but also as a squad car for the department.
The vehicle is the final missing cog in preparation for the long-discussed canine program, which the department has been fundraising for a year now, with Murphy saying they have reached over 75% of the their goal, to fully fund the canine program.
He said the dog trainer has agreed to donate a portion of the training costs of a dog, which is a savings of $7,000-$8,000, and a local veterinarian has donated food and medical service, save for emergency services.
a dual purpose dog, used for narcotics detection and search and rescue operations.
Murphy said the canine they obtain and have trained will be a dual purpose dog, used for narcotics detection and search and rescue operations.
“I’m a big fan of this program, but is it sustainable?” Alderperson Jeff Virchow asked, with Murphy stating that the funds they have raised are meant to answer that issue.
“We raised the fund to sustain the animal for its full working life here, of about six to seven years,” Murphy assured.
The only thing missing other than a dog is a vehicle to keep the animal during service times, which the council approved Murphy purchasing. The vehicle they purchase will also be usable as a general purpose squad, and he said they are hoping to get in on training his spring, and may be close to looking for a dog.
“We only started this program a year ago,” Murphy said on the successful canine program fundraising efforts and sustainability. “I’m humbled by this community … I see raising funds over six years as very doable.”
In other council action
— The council considered votes on several controversial issues, including a so-called ‘zero tolerance policy,’ which they approved after some tweaking, eliminating any reference to removal or discipline, but essentially remaining elected and appointed officials of public decorum.
The measure was first proposed several weeks ago, and was scrutinized slightly on Monday, including whether to include a paragraph about penalties or removal from office.
Mayor Arnie Carlson was adamant against the measure, calling it a blatant assault on the First Amendment.
“To punish people for certain behavior, as judge jury and hangman,” Carlson said, implying that some people “need to act their age.”
The ‘hangman’ reference rang ironic, since one of the items that brought the proposal on was an incident several weeks ago where a St. Croix Falls Plan Commission member gave small, handmade nooses to each alderperson, about a decision to dissolve the Community Development Authority.
Several alderpersons had their own qualms about portions of the proposal, but the crux of the policy, noting the need for decorum and appropriate behavior, was in general agreement.
“This is probably long overdue for this community,” sponsor Jeff Virchow stated. “It’s about standards of community conduct, that’s all.”
Virchow said the reason he crafted the policy was simple.
“Residents should feel safe at these meetings, we have a right not to hear (expletives) or get nooses,” Virchow added, stating that when those things occurred, he was shocked. “The gavel never came out, it was silence.”
Alderperson Warren White noted that may communities have similar codes of conduct, and often advertise it with a sign or plaque.
“It’s not bad to raise the consciousness of these things,” White said with a nod.
City attorney Paul Mahler agreed that such a code is common,” so people act like adults,” but he assured the council that removal of an appointed official for his or her behavior is already among their powers.
White agreed that it wasn’t bad to bring this up when someone is sworn-in, and said he had no problem with the language.
“I don’t think this is all that toxic,” White said.
Alderperson Kirk Anderson presented a motion to approve the policy, minus several references to penalties or removal from office.
Alderperson Craig Lien said that most employers have such a conduct policy and even sports teams have general policies of conduct.
“There are certain levels of expectation if you serve in that roll (of government),” Lien added. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have.”
The council after unanimously approved the code of conduct policy, minus the references to penalties.
The council debated whether to terminate their Tax Increment District No. 1 or extend it for another year to gain another $1.2-million in increment to invest in affordable housing, meaning the TID would run until March 2021, instead of closing for good this March 22, after 27 years.
The extension is one of the only ways to legally extend a TID, without approval by the Joint Review Board, with the increment dedicated to be spent on at least 75% toward affordable housing.
That threshold was not clarified, but would include administration costs for a variety of possible investments in development or infrastructure to bring housing costs down, hopefully to an affordable level, which government guidelines suggest are where your housing costs are less than 30% of household income, a figure that is way out of skew locally, and especially in St. Croix Falls.
“That was one of the things the (county housing study) pointed out, how St. Croix Falls needs this more than anywhere,” White said.
While the affordable housing extension garnered general support from the council, the lack of any real plan to implement such an effort meant they split on the vote to approve, meaning that it fell to Mayor Carlson to decide the issue, and he chose to deny the extension, meaning the TID will close for good in just over a week.
New interim city administrator Joel West was introduced to the gallery, and contributed to several of the conversations and decision, in spite of being on the job for just one week.
“We’ll put him to very good use,” Carlson said as he welcomed him to the job.

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