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Become a cop, receive a canoe

Amid hiring crisis, city adopts unique plan to lure, retain officers

by Tom Coombe

Like numerous cities across Minnesota, Ely is finding it difficult to attract and keep police officers.

A unique effort unveiled and approved Tuesday - highlighting the community’s rich connection to the outdoors - has now been launched in an effort to turn things around.

The city council endorsed an officer recruitment and retention plan - one that will provide new and current officers with a brand-new Kevlar canoe, along with two paddles and a pair of life jackets.

Police Chief Chad Houde, who presented the proposal, said the city needs to do something to stand out among hundreds of communities looking to fill vacant law enforcement positions.

“We need a way to highlight our department to why officers should come and work in Ely,” said Houde. “We need a way to attract and retain officers by providing them a way to experience the outdoor lifestyle Ely provides.”

The canoe package, which will cost about $30,000 and be spent locally, is geared toward giving officers stress relief and a way to take advantage of Ely’s surroundings and comes amid an ongoing hiring crisis.

Two Ely officers have left the department for other law enforcement positions in the last three months, and the city is posting for two positions at the same time that several other agencies - including Babbitt, Chisholm, Hibbing, Virginia, Nashwauk and both Lake and St. Louis counties - are also looking to hire.

Statewide, 201 agencies have posted positions.

“As of today, there were 201 different police agencies with job postings, and this isn’t 201 jobs, this is 201 different agencies posting for employment,” said Houde.

Houde noted that Duluth has more than 30 police vacancies while Minneapolis has roughly 200.

Locally, Ely has struggled to attract applicants.

Houde noted that the city had 25 applicants in 2020, when it filled three police jobs.

By last year, there were only three applicants for two positions and earlier in the year only one applicant - newly-hired Courtney Olson - was selected for a job that was just recently filled,.

“The last hiring process we had one applicant, a great applicant,” said Houde. “But with fewer applicants, agencies are now competing against each other for applicants and many small agencies are struggling,”

Houde said Ely is struggling to attract and retain officers, and that some local officers are leaving for better wages or larger departments.

Given the demand for law enforcement personnel, some law agencies are offering hiring bonuses, ranging from $2,500 to $15,000, while others offer tuition reimbursement or officer wellness initiatives.

“Larger agencies are able to budget for it, but unlike us they have a bigger tax base,” said Houde.

But Houde noted that Ely could tap into recently approved public safety funds authorized by the state legislature, noting that Ely received about $140,000 in  a program approved by state lawmakers and based on population.

It prompted an idea that was first floated at a city committee meeting last month.

“It was assistant chief (Mike) Lorenz’s idea that after seeing how these other departments are struggling, how do we stand out?”

“We need to be more proactive in our recruiting and retention goals and we need a unique way to stand out from other agencies.”

Houde is hoping the canoe package does just that and admitted he’s hoping it catches the attention of media beyond the Ely area and shines a spotlight on the city’s efforts to attract police officers.

“We fish, we camp, we snowmobile, we ATV, we  mountain bike, cross country ski and snowshoe,” said Houde. “But what are we most known for?  Most likely the Boundary Waters.”

Houde said for each new and current officer, “we want to outfit them for their next adventure here,” with the canoe, life jacket and paddle package valued at $3,800.

Any officer who does not fulfill a three-year commitment to the department, pay back the city on a prorated basis.  Current full-time police department employees would also receive the package and be subject to the same three-year commitment.

The package will be promoted in the city’s posting for new applicants in addition to what Houde called “great benefits and a great salary.”

Council members went along with the proposal on a 5-1 vote with Angela Campbell absent and Adam Bisbee opposed.

Bisbee said he would “like to see more information on it” before the city moved forward.


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