Grundy Center Police Department on the brink

City council hosts town hall to discuss possible elimination of the county’s only local PD

Grundy County Sheriff Kirk Dolleslager speaks this past Monday during a Grundy Center City Council town hall and special session held in the community building. The town hall addressed the ongoing difficulty of staffing the City’s local police department along with the looming possibility the council may soon be pressed to disband the force due to budget constraints, instead contracting with the Sheriff's Office for services. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

GRUNDY CENTER – Roughly 100 people turned up Monday evening at the Grundy Center Community Center for a town hall/special session regarding the looming possibility the city council may soon disband its local police department due to budget constraints and instead contract with the Grundy County Sheriff’s Office for services.

Following the Pledge of Allegiance, Mayor ‘Doc’ Paul Eberline called the meeting to order and set the stage with a brief introduction on the issue at hand.

“There’s lots and lots of rumors going around,” Eberline said. “There’s lots of discussion out in the public. And we wanted to take – as a council, as city leadership – we wanted to take a few moments and clear the air a little bit.”

After a short pause to take roll call, Eberline continued: “It’s been an ongoing discussion whether the community wants to maintain our own police force or whether we should contract with the county. … This is not a new problem.”

Eberline then turned the floor over to Grundy County Sheriff Kirk Dolleslager for a statement. From a microphone placed in the center of the spacious Wilts Room and with local citizens seated around him on either side, Dolleslager began, “I just want to let everybody know that this was not like a planned takeover by the Sheriff’s Office – the City came to use and asked for some prices on the contract.”

Grundy County Police Chief Alissa Twyford, center, listens to members of the public (off frame) speak during the city council's town hall/special session held Monday evening at the community building. Chief Twyford recently submitted her resignation, effective June 30. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

Currently, Dolleslager said, Grundy Center police officers are paid around $23 an hour while his deputies are paid “about twice that.”

Later, Dolleslager said Grundy Center’s current police budget is about $674,000; the bid on the table from the Sheriff’s Office to provide Grundy Center with 24/7 law enforcement services is $654,000 – an annual savings of $20,000. If the city were to contract with the Sheriff’s Office beginning in the next fiscal year (which starts on July 1, 2024), the county would need to hire four new deputies who would each drive their own patrol cars.

“I think the public won’t see much of a difference [in services] if the Sheriff’s Office takes over,” Dolleslager continued before later adding, “Obviously, we would like to employ [the current police officers]. However, that’s not guaranteed. I have talked with all the current officers at the police department. I believe, from my conversations with them, that they are all in favor of switching to county law enforcement. The biggest reason is pay.”

Grundy Center and its police department

Employing its own local police department makes Grundy Center, the county seat, an anomaly – no other town in Grundy County currently has its own police force.

Grundy Center Police Officer Brandon Bunker - who will soon be one of just two full time officers besides the chief left on the local force - speaks Monday evening during the public comment portion of the town hall. More than half a dozen law enforcement officers including those with the GCPD and the Grundy County Sheriff's Dept. spoke during the town hall; all of the officers who spoke were in favor of Grundy Center contracting with the county sheriff for law enforcement services going forward. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

But Grundy Center is hardly unique in terms of the difficulty the community has experienced over the years in holding on to that local police force. Across the country, police officers are in short supply these days.

According to a story published by the Associated Press last September, between 1972 and 2017, at least 521 towns and cities with populations above 1,000 but less than 200,000, have made the often fraught decision to disband their local police departments. In addition to pay disparity, the article cites a complex storm of factors contributing to the officer shortage including retirements, young people not wanting to enter the police profession, and the double 2020 morale whammy of the pandemic hitting alongside the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota.

While Grundy Center’s population has remained fairly steady through the decades – currently sitting at around 2,800 according to the 2020 census – that has not insulated the community against the shortage.

As of last Friday, the Grundy Center Police Department had nine officers including Chief Alissa Twyford on its employment rolls. Chief Twyford recently submitted her resignation, effective June 30, and will be moving to Colorado, Mayor Eberline said during the town hall, while Officer Jessica Bradley has also resigned, effective July 6 – leaving Interim Chief James Natvig and Officers Brandon Bunker and Jacob Oberle as the only full time officers.

The force also employs four part-time, reserve officers including Ryan Dehl, Jesse Huisman, Tyler McCormack, and Kyle Waugh.

Grundy Center Police Officer Jessica Bradley, who has submitted her resignation effective July 6, addresses the crowd gathered at the community center to discuss the future of the GCPD. With the departures of Bradley and Chief Alissa Twyford, the department will be down to three full-time officers including Interim Chief James Natvig. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

Eberline spoke many times during the town hall regarding the difficulty of retaining officers.

“We consistently do battle with the salary and equity. I would love to offer [what the county pays its deputies] but a lot of people don’t like to have their tax levy raised any more than what we already have to.”

Eberline also said, “What we have happen, often, is that we’ll get an officer certified and then because of the pay differential, we will lose them after a couple of years. So then we have to go through the hiring process and the training process again.”

The mayor then “went on record” that he would personally “like to see Grundy Center maintain our police force.”

“I want our police force to be not just a reactive type of police force but I want it to be proactive — I want them to be seen on the streets.”

Grundy County Attorney Erika Allen speaks toward the end of the Monday, June 24, Grundy Center town hall held in the community building to discuss the future of the town’s local police department – the only local force remaining in Grundy County. Allen spoke at length about the difficulty Iowa cities and counties have experienced lately in levying taxes for local services like law enforcement due to changes made by the state legislature. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

Before opening the floor to public comments, city councilor Rick Smith also briefly touched on Grundy Center’s ongoing police officer shortage.

“You know it takes a certain amount of officers to patrol a town – I would say a chief and four officers. So, when you’re a town of 2,800 people, you have to have that many officers. … If we want to keep our officers, we’re going to have to pay them more, and we’re going to have to levy more taxes.”

Public steps up to the mic

Just under 30 people in total spoke during the public comment portion of the town hall including at least six law enforcement officers, at least one former Grundy Center mayor, a school nurse with the Grundy Center Community School District, at least one staff member from the Grundy County Sheriff’s Office, and the Grundy County Attorney, Erika Allen.

Most of the roughly 15 speakers who were in favor of maintaining a local police department said they would be in favor of the council levying higher taxes in order to do so.

“We moved here because this city had a certain flavor. This is a sad day. I would expect this day in Seattle or Minneapolis,” Leonard Stephens said as one of the first commenters. “Speaking only for my wife and I, we want to keep the police force. We’re willing to pay more taxes to do so. And I am strongly against doing it the sheriff’s way.”

Some of the speakers were concerned with what would happen to the City’s police equipment to which Dolleslager responded the majority of it – including weapons and patrol cars – would become property of the Sheriff’s Office.

Many speakers were also concerned about the “loss” of a local school resource officer (SRO) to which Dolleslager explained no school in Grundy County currently has a certified SRO assigned to a school. Local Grundy Center police officers are often visible in and around the schools, he said, but until a school district makes the decision to hire an SRO, the concern is effectively moot.

Concerns were also raised about law enforcement response times to emergency calls.

“Our local police … show up to over 80% of our EMS calls. Not because we ask them to but because they’re out patrolling,” Grundy Center’s EMS Director, Dwight Gliem said. “I don’t know if the county police would be willing to show up without being asked – to 80% of calls. … I do feel it would be detrimental to the community to lose your local P.D.”

Dollesalger later responded to Gliem’s comments by stating his deputies “are often the first ones to ambulance calls.”

Some of the most poignant comments of the evening came from area law enforcement officers themselves including many with the Grundy Center Police Department.

Across the board, officers were in favor of switching to a county contract.

“It’s pretty common that we’re short staffed most of the time,” Officer Jesse Huisman, a reserve officer with Grundy Center since 2001 said. “[Grundy Center] seems to be a stepping stone to go to other departments with a better schedule and better pay. … Right now they work every other weekend. They may be able to have more weekends off than just two if they have a bigger department. … Burnout’s pretty bad. … That’s why people are leaving. Their [pay is] not as good and they’re overworked.”

Grundy Center Officers Brandon Bunker and Jessica Bradley also spoke in poignant, stark terms about their employment as local officers.

“One of the main things that we have brought up as officers of the city has been pay and burnout,” Bunker said. “The whole time I’ve been here [two years] we have been struggling to maintain a full staff of five officers.”

Bunker went on to address the toll the ongoing officer shortage has taken on the current officers’ personal lives.

“All of us officers at the city do have families. We do enjoy spending time with our families, and recently we have been pushed to the limit,” Bunker said, addressing members of the council while wearing his police uniform. “It has been difficult to spend time at home just because of how much we have been overworked.”

Outgoing Officer Bradley later echoed Bunker’s comments.

“[The burnout] is crazy,” Bradley began, “When you’re working 20-30 hours a week overtime just to cover down [for officer vacations, illness, training], you don’t get that time to see your family. … If the City wants that 24/7 coverage and they deserve that, but at the same time, we also deserve to have a positive work-life balance and we do not get that. It’s really frustrating when you’re working five days in a row and 12-hour shifts – and that’s like 60 hours – and you just want to go home.”

Bradley also mentioned pay disparity.

“I live paycheck to paycheck. I can’t save for a house in this already crappy economy. … I’m in support of county [law enforcement], if they can pay their officers a better wage and have a better work-life balance while still providing the same services for the community, I don’t see the harm in that. I see that as a benefit.”

“You’re going to have officers that … want to be there.”

Bradley also touched on the fact that currently city police officers are not required to live in Grundy Center or even the county – and many have not done so due to the lack of affordable housing – while deputies must live in the county if they drive a patrol car.

Local control and the state legislature

Commenter after commenter on Monday night expressed their willingness and even desire to pay more in taxes in order to maintain the local police department while also raising officer pay. At one point, Mayor Eberline explained the current city levy for law enforcement is $16.13 per $1,000 of taxable value. He then touched on a funding issue affecting cities and counties across Iowa that pits local control against the state legislature.

“The State did a lot of very interesting things last year in the legislature. They made themselves look very good but they put the counties and cities in a bit of a rock and a hard place. There’s a number of components to that.”

Eberline continued: “The difficulty is the State has now made it very difficult to raise that levy or to raise what we can charge in the city to accommodate some of those changes. So that becomes an issue.”

Near the end of the more than 90 minute town hall, Grundy County Attorney Erika Allen stepped up to the microphone and shed more light – harsh light – in very understandable language onto what Eberline first referenced in terms of funding law enforcement at the local level.

Allen, a Republican, has been the county attorney since 2015. Before that she served as the assistant county attorney from 2007-2015. In addition, she is currently both Beaman and Eldora’s city attorney. Up until 2012, Allen lived in the city of Grundy Center. She now resides outside the city limits.

“I have been overjoyed to hear how many of you are so willing to pay taxes for your law enforcement,” Allen began, “because that’s something that people [often] say, but that’s not what they’re voting for.”

Iowa has been governed by a Republican trifecta – the governor’s office and both chambers of the Iowa Assembly – since 2016.

Allen continued: “So, Doc Eberline has touched on it. I know that [Grundy County Supervisor] Barb Smith has been concerned about it … The legislature has hamstrung the county and the cities. It’s not a matter of people not paying their fair share, it’s a matter of what this legislature has done to [hamstring] the county and the city from paying for services that traditionally, by the way, were borne by the state – which they have now taken away.”

Allen further explained that while Iowa’s income tax rates are “plummeting,” local governments are increasingly coming up short.

“We are getting hamstrung by our legislature telling us how much we can levy and putting caps on it. So for everybody that enjoys having law enforcement – whether it’s county law enforcement, local law enforcement. You enjoy having [public] schools. You enjoy [having safe] roads. You like having a bridge that actually doesn’t fall in. Talk to your [legislators] because they’re the ones that are making these kinds of things a lot more common.”

Allen then characterized the current crop of Grundy Center police officers as hardworking – “too hardworking, in my opinion” – as well as conscientious and overworked.

“You see [officers] driving around town and I’m glad [that makes] you feel better. I’m glad that they’re out there having those relationships, but they don’t have time with the number of officers … to do all of the training that [is] available because they just don’t have people to cover.”

She ended her comments by stating that while she does not have an opinion one way or the other what direction the city council takes going forward – “I work with them both” – she did see a plethora of advantages to going with the Grundy County Sheriff’s Office including continuity and mentoring.

Next steps

The Grundy Center City Council is next set to meet on July 1 beginning at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall during which council members will continue to discuss the matter.

“At this point it’s the council’s choice what they want to do,” Mayor Eberline explained as part of his final comments before closing out the session with adjournment.

“Thank you all for being here tonight. We will try to make the best decision for the City of Grundy Center, and for ‘we the people’ of Grundy Center. I mean, we live here, too. We want to do what’s the best and what’s right.”

“We have some work to do — we know that.”