SIOUX CITY | A Woodbury County Board member is renewing calls to end a long-standing practice of the county Sheriff’s Office providing police coverage to certain communities for free. He’s asking for towns to chip in funding.
"At one time, a lot of these small towns had their own law enforcement," board Chairman Larry Clausen said. "But, with budget problems, they've slowly phased them out and dumped them on the sheriff."
Under a 1997 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, city governments are required to provide law enforcement coverage for residents. Clausen has been raising the issue locally for a dozen years without results. Earlier this week, he said it was time the towns started paying for police services.
Currently, eight towns of a few hundred citizens each make do with periodic patrols by deputies. Lacking municipal police officers, those citizens also rely on the county force to come to their aid when trouble erupts.
"We're doing it without charging them. No sheriff has ever charged them," said Sheriff Dave Drew, who took office Jan. 1. "They go without (police departments) because they basically know we are going to come if someone calls 911."
Drew said he's not going to lean on the towns for payment or decrease patrols, but he said the issue would best be resolved through memorandums of understanding that spell out a fee schedule for the towns and specific duties for the deputies.
Drew said Linn and Johnson counties charge about $30 per hour for regular town visits by a deputy. He said with a similar arrangement, Woodbury County could issue a monthly report summarizing deputies' hours in each town and bill them accordingly.
Drew said deputies typically drive through the smaller towns twice a day, though not on a set schedule.
In 2008 the county negotiated a roughly $10,000 contract for coverage with the town of Pierson, population 366, but talks fell apart due to funding and liability issues. Pierson Mayor Max Dunnington this week said he'd be open to working out a new county agreement, as long as it included an affordable per-capita fee.
Ken Eyres, a retired teacher in Lawton, the largest Woodbury County town without a municipal police force, said he feels safe despite the lack of local cops. Eyres said Lawton is blessed with a low crime rate, but he knows the City Council has been talking about getting more coverage.
"With the population increasing, the city is going to have to look at law enforcement," he said.
Lawton Mayor Jeff Nitzschke said some City Council members are willing to stay with the status quo since the county responds to 911 calls.
He said Lawton talked about sharing one of the Moville department's two police officers, but the Moville City Council nixed the idea. Nitzschke said if a half-dozen towns without police departments signed contracts with the county for hourly fee coverage, the county could hire a few more deputies to handle the work.
"This hourly thing sounds pretty good, really," Nitzschke said.
Maj. Greg Stallman, a high-ranking Woodbury County deputy, said contracts with the towns would afford them a prompt response that isn't possible even in the few towns with police departments, since only Sioux City and Sergeant Bluff have policing 24/7.
With deputies stationed in Sioux City and Climbing Hill, the average response time countywide is 19 minutes, or 14 minutes for towns along U.S. Highway 20, Stallman said.
He also pointed out that even before city departments pay a police officer's salary, they must spend nearly $40,000 for vehicles, equipment and training. He and Drew said towns would do better to contract with the county and get professional services.
Neither the county nor the sheriff's office has said a formal agreement for rural town coverage would require hiring more deputies. Money from the fees charged to towns would help cover existing sheriff's office costs.
Clausen said the county is increasingly using the Rural Basic property tax fund levied on rural residents to pay deputies' salaries. That means residents of such towns as Hornick and Danbury, which don't have a police department, are getting coverage without paying for it, he said.
"The rural area is paying for the policing of towns that aren't contributing to that (Rural Basic Fund)," he said.
When Clausen raised the issue in 2001, then-Sheriff Dave Amick opposed charging to police the towns, saying residents of each community already were paying for sheriff's services through property taxes. No changes occurred during Sheriff Glenn Parrett's tenure, from 2005 through 2012, either, although Parrett was involved in the talks with Pierson.
Yet Clausen and Drew said they're not going to push the towns to sign agreements. Clausen said Drew deserves more time to settle into his new position before county officials force the issue.
Drew said he expects the current arrangement will continue until city attorneys from the small towns start to worry about legal liability issues, such as whether the towns or the county would be liable if a deputy or suspect were injured during law enforcement action, and recommend change.
There is no state oversight to make sure towns follow the high court's ruling to provide police coverage, Iowa League of Cities Executive Director Alan Kemp said. The court case involved the town of Mingo in Jasper County.
"There is no entity that enforces it," Kemp said.
Pierson City Attorney Jeff Kuchel said it is unfortunate that Pierson's attempts to sign a sharing agreement with the county haven't panned out. Kuchel said the issue remains under periodic discussion in city meetings.
"It is still in the works," Kuchel said. "We are hoping to revisit that, and maybe, with the new sheriff there, we can get something worked out. But as of right now, budgetwise, the system we have in place is what works for us."