Council Approves Police Officer Hire Despite Lack of Long-Term Funding

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By: 
Cameron Bren

MIDDLETON–The Middleton Common Council approved hiring for a vacant police detective position but rejected moving forward with a referendum in the April 2021 election to raise the city’s levy limit to fund the officer and other city employees’ positions. The hire comes after the police department lost funding from the school district’s School Resource Officer (SRO) program in the 2020-21 school year. The program, which embeds officers at both the middle and high school splitting the personnel cost evenly between the district and city, has been suspended while the district reviews and decides whether or not to continue the program.

With the lack of funds from the school district, the vacant detective position can be filled using personnel savings from that position and another which have remained vacant for several months.

District 1 Ald. Kathy Olson said the city should wait till the school district determines the fate of the SRO program. Olson added that if the district ends the program the number of police calls to the school will likely remain the same but there would be no funding coming from the district.

“I would rather wait on this until we know where we stand with school resource officers,” Olson said.

Council President Dan Ramsey said the council should consider that hiring the officer will affect the budget in years beyond 2021 should the district choose to end the program.

District 2 Ald. Robert Burke thanked Police Chief Troy Hellenbrand for working within the given financial constraints to fill the position cost neutral for the 2021 budget.

District 6 Ald. Susan West said she would like to ask the school district to resubmit the agreement for SROs. Mayor Gurdip Brar said he has been in contact with district superintendent Dana Monogue and that the review is underway. 

City Administrator Mike Davis presented an overview of city staffing issues facing the city in the coming years. The plan proposes new positions over the next five years for police officers, public lands, library and utilities employees.

Davis said the city could fund the new positions by referendum but would need to make a decision at its Jan. 19 meeting to get on the ballot for the only election in April 2021.

He said there has been some interest in a referendum to fund a public safety position, but the council must consider what is most important: hiring needed staff or keeping taxes low.

Davis explained that the city has limited revenue options under state laws adopted over the last decade.

“With levy limit caps, the squeeze by the state on not allowing for inflationary growth, growing communities like Middleton are adversely affected by that,” Davis said. “It is essentially live on your growth and nothing else other than fee adjustments that are allowed by the state legislature.”

Davis said the city will likely see less growth in new residential housing in the foreseeable future because of infrastructure challenges and land preservation by the county. He noted that infill and TIF development has potential to continue growing. 

Finance Director Bill Burns prepared rough estimates of the impact on property taxes if the city were to increase the levy limit by $500,000 or $1,000,000. 

Burns said the city must estimate the allowable levy limit increase based on net new construction from the previous year and frame the referendum question on what the difference would be. 

He said a $500,000 increase would raise the tax rate an additional 2.7 percent, while a $1,000,000 increase would raise it 5.4 percent. Burns noted in a typical year there is 2-3 percent increase based on new construction. 

West made a motion to set a referendum to fund a police officer position by raising the levy limit $100,000.

District 8 Ald. Mark Sullivan said that is not a large enough amount to make it worth the effort. 

District 4 Ald. Emily Kuhn questioned whether any referendum would have enough support to pass. West pointed to the recent referendums which passed supporting solar power and flood water infrastructure improvements.

District 5 Ald. Luke Fuszard said those referendums weren’t proposed in the midst of a pandemic that has had drastic economic impact.

Mayor Brar said compared to similar sized municipalities throughout the state Middleton has a comparable number of police officers. 

“To say that we are falling behind, well the data doesn’t support that,” Brar said.

Hellenbrand said the national standard is two officers per 1,000 residents. Currently Middleton has 1.85 per 1,000 residents. The national average is 2.4 per 1,000, he added.

He noted Fitchburg has 52 officers for 30,000 people. Sun Prairie has 56 officers for 34,000 residents and the department is asking for two more. Monona has 21 officers for 7,800 residents and Verona has 25 officers for 12,000 residents. Middleton has 24 officers for 20,000 residents. 

Hellenbrand said the city is at its lowest point since it began tracking the staff to population ratio in 2005. 

Ramsey asked if April would be the right time to ask residents to increase their taxes.

“In April do we want to go to our constituents, some of whom have lost jobs, some of whom are not working and say to them we want $1,000,000 to add new positions to the city and raise your property taxes?” Ramsey said. 

The council rejected the referendum proposal in a 6-2 vote. 

Brar pointed out that the city could hold a special election for a referendum instead of waiting till 2022.

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