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Emmet County/Armstrong law enforcement contract: Irreconcilable differences?

By Staff | May 30, 2014

For nearly two years, the City of Armstrong and Emmet County have tried to hammer out their differences over dispatching fees – and later a law enforcement contract. Now it seems the two sides are as far apart as ever.

We are running the following story to air both sides of this issue. City of Armstrong officials and Emmet County Sheriff Mike Martens were both given the opportunity to respond to the other party’s original comments, which both parties did.

When City of Armstrong and Emmet County officials a few weeks ago agreed to resume talks over the county providing law enforcement services and dispatching for the City of Armstrong, it seemed as though light had appeared at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

But when those talks fell apart a little over two weeks ago, any further attempt to repair the breach in the previous agreement seemed hopeless.

In 1983, Emmet County and Armstrong signed a law enforcement agreement in which the county furnished 24-hour dispatching services, with Armstrong paying the county 5 percent of the payroll cost. Estherville pays 35 percent, with both figures based on population.

It was that agreement with which Armstrong took issue when it sent a letter June 4, 2012 to the supervisors stating:

“This letter will serve as the 30 day notice to terminate the Agreement dated in 1983, between the City of Armstrong and the County.

“The City of Armstrong is requesting that the dispatching fees of 5 percent, currently being paid to the county, no longer by reimbursed by the City of Armstrong.”

Sheriff Mike Martens notified the City of Armstrong last November that dispatching services would end in 30 days if the city didn’t pay back dispatching fees. Services ended in December and on Dec. 30 Martens said law enforcement services would end March 1.

The last meeting between Armstrong city and Emmet County officials was Wednesday, May 14. Representing Armstrong were council members Adrian Hagebock and Rhett Hiney, mayor Greg Buum and police chief Craig Merrill. Representing Emmet County were sheriff Martens and Emmet County supervisors Jon Martyr and Bev Juhl.

Following are interviews conducted with both Armstrong Mayor Greg Buum and police chief Craig Merrill May 21 and Emmet County Sheriff Mike Martens May 23.

City of Armstrong’s position

Merrill said Martens’ proposal was to take full control of Armstrong’s public safety for $77,000 a year, including wages and benefits. In exchange, the city would have a deputy in town for 20 hours a week. The deputy would spend the rest of the time patrolling elsewhere in Emmet County.

“The City of Armstrong would be subject to the county to pay for the other half of that employee,” said Merrill.

“In response to Merrill’s remark that they would only have a deputy in town 20 hours a week and the rest of the time patrolling somewhere else is not accurate,” Martens said. “The sheriff’s office patrols in and out of Armstrong whether there was a contract or not. We always have. In fact just last Sunday morning one of my deputies stopped a vehicle in Armstrong at 11:32 a.m. and arrested an adult and a juvenile for possession of marijuana and alcohol. And don’t forget we also will be answering calls for service the rest of the time too for $30,000 less than is spent now.”

As for the final bill for dispatching the city received, Buum said, “We don’t owe it.”

Merrill said Emmet County officials told Armstrong that the law enforcement contract was cancelled because Armstrong didn’t pay the dispatching fee. And Buum said the only option the county offered Armstrong was to turn over its law enforcement to them. Merrill, agreed, saying Martens wanted countywide law enforcement by forcing Armstrong into a contract.

Instead, Buum said Armstrong wanted to handle law enforcement by the hour, day or month.

“He won’t even go back to the old way,” Buum said of the previous law enforcement agreement between Armstrong and the county. He said it was never the intent of Armstrong to never pay the dispatching fee, that the city merely wanted to renegotiate it. He said that fee amounts to $800 to $900 a month with law enforcement at $1,000 a month.

“In response to the accusation that I wanted countywide law enforcement by forcing Armstrong into a contract is also not accurate,” said Martens. What I wanted is for the citizens of Emmet County and Armstrong to receive professional law enforcement services that their communities need and deserve and I don’t think that those services include pool maintenance, street repairs, water testing and garbage pickup.

“Law enforcement needs to be delivered in an unbiased fashion by professional law enforcement officers. What I had developed for a plan did exactly that by providing a staff level for the sheriff’s office that allowed for protection of ALL the rest of the citizens the sheriff’s office provides law enforcement services for and saving your community a sizable sum of money. The previous contract of the sheriff’s office taking Armstrong’s calls for service three days a week at the present staff levels takes law enforcement protection away from everyone else in Emmet County and spreads this office out too thin and I will not be a part of compromising those responsibilities.”

“Voters need to remember these are elected officials and they’re not doing what they should,” Buum said.

“In response to Buum’s remark that ‘Voters need to remember these are elected officials and they’re not doing what they should’ he is right. According to Iowa Code Chapter 372.4(6) it says the mayor shall appoint a council member as mayor pro tem and shall appoint and dismiss the marshal or chief of police except where an INTERGOVERNMENTAL AGREEMENT makes other provisions for POLICE PROTECTION or as otherwise provided in section 400.13.

“So yes, the voters should remember this because it is the City of Armstrong’s MAYOR and CITY COUNCIL who bear the responsibility of providing for police protection to their community. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled upon this very issue in 1997 in the case of Jasper County vs. the City of Mingo where the Supreme Court actually found that it is the city council’s responsibility to provide for police protection and THAT IT IS NOT the responsibility of the county to provide police protection to a city.

“In response to Buum’s remark that Emmet County is just looking out for its own needs, ‘They need a new deputy and they need a new squad car’, I have already covered that earlier but once again if we were to add Armstrong’s officer to the department because we were to enter into a contract we would need to equip him and by doing that in the way I have suggested benefited everyone involved.”

Merrill said Armstrong should be paying a lesser percentage for dispatching than it did under the 1983 agreement – not more – since in 1983 the city had two full-time and three-part-time officers and now it has just one officer. Also in 1983, the sheriff had five deputies. Fewer officers would mean the city would use less dispatching and radio time, Merrill said.

Buum said Armstrong citizens want local law enforcement. And he said Emmet County is looking out for its own needs – not Armstrong’s.

“They need a new deputy and they need a new squad car,” Buum said. “They are flat not willing to help us.”

In its proposal to Emmet County, the Armstrong City Council requested the sheriff’s department provide coverage at an agreed-upon hourly rate or a contract similar to the previous contract with a monthly fee agreed upon by both parties. The agreement Armstrong requested would include all dispatching rights at no additional cost and both departments exchanging activities and information to keep on top of any ongoing investigations and incidents.

Merrill underscored several additional points.

He said it was Martens’ choice to continue dispatching after the June 4, 2012 letter the council had sent him cancelling dispatching.

He also said that when Martens wanted to set up a meeting for 4 p.m. Nov. 18, 2013 with the city that city officials couldn’t attend because of a special council meeting.

“I feel the sheriff and the supervisors need to take some responsibility for the whole situation,” Merrill said. “They knew the City of Armstrong had cancelled the agreement but continued to bill us. They should have dealt with the situation then and not pushed it aside for almost two years.

“Emmet County provided 15 hours a week in Ringsted for a little over $15,000 a year,” Merrill added. He said that meant the county was getting under $20 an hour – not enough to cover a deputy’s hourly rate, vehicle and other expenses.

“The city isn’t looking to get a handout,” Merrill said. “They only want to get a fair shake. As of now I don’t feel the City of Armstrong is being treated the same as other small municipalities in Emmet County.”

“In regard to Merrill trying to compare what is provided to Ringsted by the sheriff’s office and what has been proposed to provide Armstrong,?I have tried to explain this over and again. That is like comparing apples to oranges. Armstrong has two state highways running through it, a high school, a business district, major manufacturing that draws people in and out of it every day and 926 people. Ringsted is little more than 400 people, no major manufacturing, no state highways, no schools and a very small business district. The needs are totally different between the two.”

Emmet County’s position

Sheriff Mike Martens said the county continued to provide dispatching despite the fact that Armstrong chose not to pay dispatching fees.

“When supervisors Jon Martyr and Tim Schumacher and Emmet County Attorney Doug Hansen and I met with Mayor Dailey, councilmen Leach and Grussing and police chief Merrill from Armstrong it was made very clear by Dailey that the intent of his letter was not to terminate dispatching,” said Martens. They just wanted to pay less or nothing at all. I was told they hardly use the radio anymore so they shouldn’t have to pay the 5 percent rate. I told them that I would investigate the matter and we would meet again. We continued to provide the services during the time I looked into it. They needed dispatch services and we needed the facts so we continued providing the services. What I learned was there was a huge difference in the amount of time they were using the radio in that year compared to the year prior, however, I was receiving reports that Merrill was still calling dispatch for things but using the phone instead. I also set out to determine if the 5 percent for Armstrong was fair in comparison to Estherville’s 35 percent rate. There were no notes, minutes or manuals that explained how these percentages were arrived at in 1983 so I went about trying to determine the method. It was clearly not a call for service basis because that could be subject to rapid change. I finally determined that it had to be based upon the percentage of the population of Emmet County each community represents. When I compared both Armstrong’s 5 percent and Estherville’s 35 percent using this method the rates were nearly identical based on the population with what appears to be a slight advantage to Armstrong. I was finally able to prove that the rate was fair and amicable to Estherville’s rate and nobody was being taken advantage of or being mistreated. In regard to the use or the lack of the use of the radio that I was told about, the radio is only a small piece of what dispatch services provide to a law enforcement agency. Whether they choose to have one officer or 10, the rate is the same because of population.”

Martens said he looked at the fees Armstrong had been paying in comparison to what Estherville was paying to determine if they were fair.

“The rates were fair and they were amicable and no one was being taken advantage of,” Martens said. He said Armstrong was getting a better deal than Estherville, with both rates based on population.

So why did Martens continue to provide dispatching even though Armstrong was no longer paying?

“I saw no benefit to not provide the services,” Martens said.

Martens said he tried to set up a meeting with delegates from Armstrong but they did not attend. He said he was going to give his findings after studying the dispatching issue. He also said he believed the rate Armstrong was charged was fair and not charging that rate would not be fair to the citizens of the rest of Emmet County.

Martens said he notified Armstrong that if payment of past due dispatching fees was not paid he would cancel services. He said Armstrong refused to pay and that the city was given notice that dispatching would come to an end.

Martens said he had also been providing Armstrong with law enforcement for 43 percent of the time at $1,000 a month, but Armstrong was not paying the dispatching fee for when his officers were there. He said he then served notice that the law enforcement agreement would be terminated.

Martens said that agreement entered into in 2007 provided that Emmet County would answer calls for service three days a week, during the Armstrong officer’s vacation, training and sick leave for $1,000 a month. He said that meant providing 72 hours of service a week for $3.20 an hour.

“Emmet County was being paid $3.20 an hour to take care of the needs of a community of 920 people,” Martens said.

By contrast, Martens said Armstrong’s public safety budget of $105,575 for 2012 – or 4,992 hours a year – amounted to $21.14 an hour.

“There’s a huge disparity there but we provided the coverage,” Martens said, adding that when dispatching ended, law enforcement ended.

Martens explained that often he has one deputy on duty. By having that deputy go to Armstrong, it meant other Emmet County communities were not covered.

Martens said when he met with the Armstrong delegation the first time this year, he set out to identify goals. He said Armstrong’s goals were:

n Time off for Armstrong Police Chief Craig Merrill.

n Making law enforcement services for Armstrong cheaper than before.

n Having 24-hour coverage.

Martens said he took that information and came up with what he saw as a win-win offer – to provide 100 percent of Armstrong’s law enforcement coverage with a projected savings of $30,000 a year. He said his plan would be to answer every call for service and accepting the city’s squad car and equipment in exchange for Armstrong’s outstanding dispatching fees. And Armstrong would no longer pay for dispatching.

“To provide 100 percent of Armstrong’s law enforcement coverage with a projected savings to Armstrong of $30,000 annually, the Emmet County Sheriff’s Office would provide at least 20 hours per week of patrol in Armstrong and would respond to EVERY CALL for service. A method to settle the back payment of the dispatch fees and reduce start-up costs and provide for the current Armstrong officer was engineered into this by taking Armstrong’s squad car and equipment in trade for the dispatch fees for the additional deputy that would be need to be equipped and taking on the Armstrong officer into that new position as a deputy sheriff. Additionally Armstrong would no longer pay a dispatch fee.”

Martens said under his plan Merrill would be transferred laterally to the sheriff’s office.

He said he presented his plan at the second meeting with Armstrong but that city officials were not interested. He said they wanted their officer to handle water operations, pool maintenance, driving the garbage truck and street maintenance and that the city had proposed the same agreement that was in place previously but for less money.

“And they wished to not pay any dispatching fees as well,” Martens said.

Martens said he met again with Armstrong and said “that was not the kind of law enforcement services I was interesting in providing for the citizens of Armstrong.”

Martens said he explained to Armstrong officials that three deputies were paid from rural services and not by anyone in a municipality. He added that the office of sheriff is not required to provide law enforcement protection for municipalities and that service to communities is over and above what he is required to provide.

“I provided what I felt was a very fair and honest attempt to provide them what they need,” Martens said. “I provided an option that would be a savings for the city. I provided an option that provided a $30,000 annual savings to Armstrong, provided them 24-hour-a-day enforcement coverage, provided their employee a job and painless method to discharge a debt.”

When it appeared negotiations were at an impasse, Martens said he had suggested to Armstrong officials that they hire a part-time officer “and if I could help with that process I would.”

Martens said his proposal also included no administrative fee – something allowed for in Iowa Code. He said he believed his proposal would be a benefit to both the citizens of Armstrong and Emmet County.

“I had no interest in gaining personally from this situation,” said Martens. “It would no doubt be more work and responsibility for me.”

The differences

Armstrong city officials feel a strong need to maintain their own officer. Reasons include the fact that Armstrong’s police officer has handled other duties dealing with water, wastewater, streets and, more recently, garbage.

Another reason is that Armstrong officials want to maintain an officer within the community.

Another reason – and probably the hardest to define – is community pride in maintaining their own officer.

As for Emmet County, Sheriff Martens speaks economy of scale. That’s how he would be able to provide 24-hour law enforcement at $30,000 a year less than what Armstrong spends currently.

Martens said his plan would be to retain Merrill as a deputy.

“In closing I have been fair and unbiased about the issues and would welcome the idea of working with the City of Armstrong in the future,” said Martens. “It is unfortunate that things did not work out. The bottom line is both of these issues belong to the City of Armstrong to resolve and not Emmet County nor the Emmet County Sheriff’s Office.”