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Equipment costs snag public safety debate in Iowa county

SIBLEY, Iowa -- Facing termination of their unified law enforcement contract at the end of June, members of the Osceola County Public Safety Commission (PSC) met Wednesday night in hopes of working out a new budget and contract for the sheriff's department.

Instead, they were thrown a virtual curve ball that ended with some commission members revisiting the idea of contract law enforcement.

The PSC and the county's board of supervisors have tried to work out a new contract for more than a year. Among their sticking points is the size of the budget request -- at nearly $887,000 -- and who is going to pay for it. In the center of that debate is the issue of funding the communications equipment used by the sheriff's department.

The equipment costs are being paid through the PSC's budget, which includes funds collected from each of the communities in the county as members in the unified law contract. However, some members believe the costs should be covered completely by the county and paid for through the collection of property tax dollars. The communications portion of the budget is approximately $162,000.

Gene Philiph, attorney for the PSC, said Wednesday night that the county should be paying the costs for the communications equipment.

Philiph, who served as the commission's attorney when its charter was amended in 1989, revealed information from by-laws that same year that detail the county's obligation to fund the communications portion of the sheriff's budget.

"Under that agreement, it specifically spells out the county should take care of the communications budget," Philiph said, adding that he does not have, nor know of, any changes made to the by-laws since they were adopted in 1989.

Philiph's reading of the by-laws called into question when, and how, the funding was ever the responsibility of the public safety commission.

"The communications, somehow -- somewhere along the way -- was snuck back in (to the public safety commission budget)," said commission member Arlyn Pedley of Ocheyedan.

Darwin Beltman, a county supervisor and commission member, called the statement in the by-laws "new information," and said he'd like to see the minutes from the commission meeting when the by-laws were adopted.

Commission member Dick Mataloni of Sibley said the group can't pass the budget "with $162,000 hanging out there."

Time is of the essence, though, said Sibley attorney Harold Dawson.

"Whether we like it or not, we've got to work together somehow," Dawson said. He suggested a smaller working group of commission members and county supervisors meet to work out their differences on the law enforcement contract.

The length of time it's already taken, and the fact that nothing has yet been resolved, is aggravating to commission members like Dan Grote of Ashton.

"I'm ready to terminate (unified law)," he said. "I'm tired of this. .... We go back and forth and you just as well can beat your head against the wall."

Grote said the communities should convert to contract law enforcement and give up on working together.

"We are at a point that contract law will be cheaper," added Gary Benz, a commission member from Melvin.

Mataloni said Sibley, slated to pay nearly $265,000 in the proposed 2006-2007 law enforcement budget, is also paying too much.

"The contract says we get 24/7 protection," he said. "We're not getting it, but yet we're paying for it. We know (the sheriff's department) can't give 24/7 coverage, they're short-staffed the way it is."

After commission members had an opportunity to voice their frustrations, Benz said completing a new contract for unified law is still their first goal.

"I would like us to work on it," he said. "It would be better for all of us. I think it's well worth our time to make this work."

Beltman agreed. He, along with Benz, Mataloni and a second county supervisor will make up the working committee. They are slated to meet on Jan. 18 to work on an agreement, and then report back to the PSC during a special meeting set for 5 p.m. Jan. 25.

Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
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