When I joined the Leader-Telegram staff in 2001 and moved to Chippewa Falls, the city had 27 sworn police officers. Through the recession years, several vacant positions were eliminated, and the number of officers dropped to 23.
At a Chippewa Falls City Council meeting this month, police Chief Matt Kelm made a plea for more officers. He made a request during the 2017 budget process for two officers, but that request didn’t move forward.
While the population of Chippewa Falls has been steady — roughly 13,000 to 14,000 — the need for more police has climbed. By the end of June, the Chippewa County district attorney’s office had filed 500 felonies. In all of 2014, only 496 felony cases were filed. So, it is fair to say that crime cases in the county have doubled from four years ago. I’m sure the Chippewa Falls numbers would mirror what is occurring countywide.
I think most of the Chippewa Falls council members would agree that an added officer would be beneficial, but the question becomes how to pay for it.
Levy limits essentially keep municipalities to 2 to 3 percent increases, which barely keep up with workers’ wages and benefits. Adding an officer and the $100,000-range in salary, benefits, training and equipment — let alone two or more officers — seems almost impossible within the levy limits.
Last year, the Chippewa Falls Fire Department got permission to use dollars from emergency service calls to pay for another battalion chief. The Chippewa County sheriff’s office is looking at ways to pay for a full-time bailiff for the courthouse complex through contracted service dollars because money from the levy simply isn’t available.
So, if the city of Chippewa Falls is to hire another officer, the council will likely have to get creative.
Two years ago, the village of Lake Hallie asked village residents if they would approve a referendum to add a detective/investigator position to the police staff. That option would certainly be open to the Chippewa Falls City Council, but I’m not sure if city residents would approve such a referendum, particularly after approving the $65 million school plan in April.
Because of the drop in the number of sworn officers, the Police Department realigned its staff. The patrol officers now work 12-hour shifts instead of eight.
However, the department has seen younger officers — who aren’t eligible to retire— leave for different work. One officer just left to buy a private business; I contacted him for a story but he declined at this time. It is certainly concerning to see these quality officers opt to leave for different careers. Maybe adding another officer would help.
It will be interesting to watch the budget process play out this fall, to see if the city can find a creative way to fund another officer position.