OTTUMWA — Firefighters, police officers and their supporters packed the Ottumwa council chambers for the second time in less than a month Tuesday, pushing the city council to bring both departments up to full force.
The council did so, but not in the way staff proposed. A pair of votes set aside the recommendations of city staff, substituting plans offered by councilmen Marc Roe and Matt Dalbey.
The changes to the hiring for the fire department are more to the schedule than the number. Both the staff plan and Dalbey’s proposal allowed for hiring three new firefighers. But Dalbey’s proposal calls for immediately filling the positions rather than making the new hires in October, December and March.
City Administrator Andy Morris cautioned the council that there was a big difference between having the police and fire departments fully staffed on paper and making sure people were able to work.
“Having full staffing rhetorically is one thing. Hiring and retaining full staffing is another,” he said.
Dalbey conceded that point when speaking about his proposal. “We can never fully count on all of our employees staying here. … We know we can’t compete on salary. That wouldn’t be the responsible thing to do,” he said.
Intentionally or not, the council’s focus on public safety was underscored by its role earlier in the evening as the city’s board of health. During that session members approved demolition of two houses in Ottumwa that were destroyed by fire earlier this year. Fire Chief Tony Miller previously argued in favor of filling the vacant positions in his department based on the number of structure fires in 2017. Miller reiterated the point during the discussion on Dalbey’s proposal, noting that Ottumwa just had the 39th structure fire of the year.
“We have a lot of fires. That’s just how it is,” he said.
Councilman Victor Streeby said getting the new firefighters in place had to be the council’s priority. “I appreciate the efforts of the staff to put together the staging plan. … But to wait these months I just think is way too long.”
Dalbey’s proposal passed unanimously.
Roe’s proposal for the police department passed on a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Bob Meyers opposed. It directs the city to immediately bring the department to 42 sworn officers, which will require the hiring of at least six officers. It also calls for creating an expedited hiring process and allowing for a recruitment or signing bonus.
The proposal also involves a significant change to the way the department works, changing it over to 12-hour shifts within the next 60 days. Officers work 2,184 hours per year under that plan.
There remain financial concerns with the council’s actions, even among those who fully supported the votes. Both Dalbey and Councilman Skip Stevens acknowledged concerns about whether the state will meet its obligations to backfill the property tax reductions it passed several years ago. On Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds declined to commit to the backfill, which sends some money back to local governments to ease the financial pain.
But to Stevens the concerns about safety outweighed worries about the state.
“I know there’s always concerns with anything we do. But the last two or three months … we’ve really been enlightened to what’s going on. Our police officers are in what, as far as I’m concerned, is a terrible situation,” he said.
The state’s decision on the local backfill is expected soon.