Council tries to balance police with budget
by Rick DeClue · News · November 23, 2012

The West Branch City Council this month wrestled with balancing budget limitations against public safety after recent turnover at the police department.

Nathan McDougall, who joined the West Branch Police Department in August, resigned in order to return to the military. Under the terms of his Officer Training Reimbursement Agreement, he will reimburse the city approximately $7,000 for academy training costs.

When the council questioned the short tenure, City Administrator Matt Muckler said he felt that MacDougall dealt with the city in good faith and simply determined law enforcement was not the right career choice for him. Police Chief Mike Horihan said later that he had “nothing but good things to say about Nathan,” and respects his decision.

The council then discussed the challenges of hiring MacDougall’s replacement, Alex Koch. They clarified that the issues were with the city’s process, not with Koch or his qualifications.

First, MacDougall’s contract allows up to one year for reimbursement. The reimbursement requirement is prorated the longer an officer stays with the force and disappears at the end of an initial four-year commitment as part of their employment.

Council Member Colton Miller questioned the length of time for repayment. Muckler said that this point is addressed in Koch’s reimbursement agreement by shortening the period to 30 days in the event of resignation or termination in Koch’s first year.

Muckler provided detailed information about the costs of taking a new hire through training, both locally and at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, to certification and independent patrol work. In the case of Koch, the cost for the balance of fiscal year 2012 will add approximately $34,000 to the department’s budget, less the portion of MacDougall’s reimbursement received by June 30, 2013.

These costs, which are not part of the reimbursement structure, primarily represent compensation during training, plus overtime costs to provide the city full police coverage during the new hire’s time at the academy. They represent the financial cost of turnover.

Muckler said the city is exploring Department of Justice grants to offset or reduce these unbudgeted costs. They are hard to anticipate because turnover costs are not necessarily ongoing, he said, if officers and trainees at least fulfill the four-year commitment standard in their contracts.

Muckler and Horihan also adjusted the salary arrangement in Koch’s agreement to pay a reduced rate during local and academy training. Koch will not be paid at the full officer rate until he completes the training in May 2013. This step was taken as both a budgeting consideration and to more accurately reflect the nature of the job’s demands during training, Horihan said.

The second major issue is the city’s ability to attract candidates who are already certified, thereby reducing training costs. As a smaller community, West Branch does not fully compete with surrounding jurisdictions, such as Iowa City or the Cedar County Sherriff’s Department in terms of officer salaries.

Despite increases approved by the council that raised officer salaries by $5,000 in the last two years, West Branch still trails other departments: the city pays $4,000 to $5,000 less than Cedar County Sheriff’s department, for example.

Muckler said that the city will likely never compete with larger departments on salary, and that losing officers to higher salary opportunities remains a risk to smaller communities.

Council Member Jim Oaks said that the city had gone through the right steps. The process that resulted in MacDougall’s hiring attracted more than 50 prospects, but not a good certified candidate.

Oaks said this has happened before, and the city has to have some plan to develop certified officers. Muckler added that the city then hopes the officer’s tenure supports the city’s decision to invest in the training and certification.

Horihan said later that, like all department heads, he has the responsibility to live within the city’s fiscal process as directed by council, while meeting the city’s public safety needs with a full, qualified and motivated group of officers. He said he has full respect for the council and their responsibilities, and is thankful for their support. He added that one simple goal is to continue to communicate the benefits of living and working in West Branch to potential new hires.

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