City administrator responds to claims of Newton being unsafe

·8 min read

Sep. 26—In response to a resident's claims that Newton is no longer a safe placeto live and its officials are doing nothing to confront homelessness in the area, the city administrator sent an 11-page reply citing lower crime rates and a list of 19 ways the city and other entities are addressing homelessness.

During the citizen participation segment of the Sept. 7 city council meeting, Newton resident Jerry Chandler said "the problems this city has is getting worse and worse and nobody is addressing them." Chandler brought pictures of needles, meth pipes and homeless camps to illustrate his point.

"I've confronted several police officers, several deputies. Their answer to me is: 'Well, what can we do? Every time we do something (or) we run them off, they come back.' OK. Run 'em off again. Arrest 'em," Chandler said. "Because as far as I know vagrancy in Newton is illegal. Trespassing is illegal."

Chandler claimed there were no issues with homelessness in town when he was growing up. He then posed the question: "Are we safe in Newton, Iowa, now?"

Newton Mayor Mike Hansen responded, "Absolutely."

Chandler disagreed. He was later told by Newton City Administrator Matt Muckler he would be provided a written response to his questions. On Sept. 14, nearly a week later, Muckler delivered. The 11-page letter included comprehensive diagrams, data from as early as 2020 and Muckler's own thoughts.

Muckler said the crime rates in Newton have dropped by 45 percent since 2000, which indicated to him that the city "has been and continues to be a safe place to live." From 2019 to 2020, Newton experienced a 34 percent drop in Part I crimes (violent/property) and 2 percent increase in Part II crimes (public society crimes).

"Although much of this decrease in crime has been attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, so far in the first half of 2021 the rate of crime has stayed on pace with the 2020 numbers," Muckler said. "This is encouraging, especially in the area of property crime, which decreased by 27 percent in 2020."

Muckler went on to correct another claim made by Chandler, when he stated vagrancy was illegal. This is false. Newton does not have a vagrancy law because such laws have been found to be unconstitutional throughout the United States, Muckler said, and discriminatory against marginalized individuals.

"Loitering laws have also been challenged in court and although there are a few loitering laws on the books at the local level, state level loitering laws are mostly non-existent," Muckler said. "Newton does not have a loitering law. Trespassing is enforceable through both the City Code and Iowa Code."

The city, on an ongoing basis, also cleans up sites where drug users or people affected by homelessness may have been congregating. Muckler commended the efforts made by the two community service officers in the Newton Police Department in cleaning up properties that previously contained nuisances.

Specifically, Muckler called attention to the cleanups near the 900 block of East 12th Street North and the gazebo at Sersland Park.

"Instead of complaining about nuisance properties at city council meetings, please report any nuisances you see immediately to the City of Newton so that we can respond and clean them up as soon as possible," Muckler said, suggesting Chandler visit the "request tracker" at www.newtongov.org.

When it comes to addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness, Muckler said the city has been extremely active for many, many years. But he also noted the issue is complex. There is no silver bullet that can solve the problem, he said, and requires many people of different entities to work together.

"People who are experiencing homelessness are often facing other challenges and need a wide variety of support services in addition to housing," Muckler said. "Other related challenges include mental health issues and substance use disorders. Unfortunately, property crime is a factor in this discussion as well."

Muckler listed the following ways the city is working to address homelessness:

—Central Iowa Regional Housing Authority programs have provided assistance to about 125 families in Newton through Section 8 vouchers or public housing units. The city is a longtime member of CIRHA.

—Low Income Housing Tax Credits projects often see the city as an active participant. Two senior housing projects, Linden Place Apartments and Newton Place Apartments, and a workforce housing project, Hotel Maytag, used LIHTC.

—Low-to-Moderate Income Family Programs to be used in residential urban renewal areas. These areas require the city to create a funding stream for projects benefiting low-to-moderate income families.

—Rental Housing Inspection Program was created to provide safe and sanitary housing conditions for residents of Newton by establishing minimum standards and regular inspections for all rental housing units in town.

—Nuisance abatement has received generous funding from council. Two community service officers from the police department are assigned to address nuisances affecting peace, safety and general welfare.

—D&D program has allowed city to acquire, restore or demolish properties that are dilapidated. The city acquires the properties and partners with private entities to create quality development that benefits the community.

—D&D 2.0 program has given contractors a chance to apply for grants to improve housing in Newton. The program encourages the rehabilitation of neglected properties to create affordable and safe housing opportunities.

—Jasper County Cares Coalition is working to provide a forum for providers and focus on prevention efforts. The coalition was founded under the leadership of the Newton Police Department and meets monthly.

—Mobile Crisis Response Teams have handled mental health emergencies in real time since 2018. Teams to two mental health professionals respond to these emergencies that would otherwise require police intervention.

—Crime-Free Multi-Housing Program holds landlords accountable for illegal behaviors at their rental units. The program was updated in 2019 and online training is now available for landlords.

—Partnerships with local social service agencies. The city provides funding for the United Way of Jasper County, Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency, the Newton YMCA and the Jasper County Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

—Hiring more police officers. Three additional officers are now available for duty. The city has oftentimes transported homeless to shelters, referred them to available services in the community or utilized mobile crisis response teams.

—Cops and Neighborhoods United program allows residents to make their neighborhoods a safer place to live. The program works to develop relationships between officers and residents and develop strong connections.

—Jasper County Crime Stoppers asks citizens to fight crime by supplying leads and information, which may assist in bringing criminals to justice. The program offers anonymity to people who provide information.

—Transitional housing is in the works. A city board recently approved a zoning request to turn a single-family home into transitional housing for women. The city also works closely with Discover Hope 5:17.

—Hotel rooms for short-term homeless stabilization is sometimes used for people who need assistance. Organizations like the Discover Hope, Salvation Army, Capstone and Central Iowa Shelter Services have provided hotel rooms.

—Central Iowa Shelter Services and Rolling Hills Coalition are working with the city for housing and outreach opportunities. The police department's community engagement officer meets with CISS and RHC monthly.

—Meals and services for homeless individuals are in Newton through Discover Hope and Connections, both of which offer free lunches. They also allow for mental health or substance use disorder drop-ins.

—Quarterly MercyOne/judicial/law enforcement meetings are attended by city staff to discuss ways to help people experiencing homelessness and mental health crises.

Muckler also included a recent activity update from the Newton Police Department. The police station continues to see a significant number of calls relating to homeless, most of which involve a handful of individuals with chronic mental health and substance use disorders, Muckler said.

One individual — who was not named in Muckler's letter — is in contact with the police department 10 to 40 times per week. Muckler said the person has been arrested or cited by officers 40 times since Jan. 1, 2021. The person was charged with trespassing, theft, public intoxication and disorderly conduct.

Most businesses long First Avenue and downtown have had no trespass orders served on the individual. The courts have only issued fines for these offenses, which remain unpaid. Muckler said the person did serve 30 days in jail for a burglary in 2020.

"This case is a great example of how the justice and mental health systems are broken," Muckler said, adding officers have consistently tried to offer services to the individual to no avail. "...Unfortunately, individuals like this need long-term, court-ordered treatment."

However, Muckler also acknowledged there is no easy answer to this case. Still, Muckler said the police department will continue to respond to complaints regarding individuals with chronic issues and assist them in seeking resources if they are willing, or cite or arrest them if they have broken a law.

"The City of Newton is a safe place to live and due to efforts undertaken and funding appropriated to various endeavors by the Newton City Council, including directly to our police department, Newton is much safer today than it was 20 years ago," Muckler said in his letter.

"The City of Newton is working in a comprehensive manner to address the issue of homelessness and related issues in our community. We are engaging with many non-profits, community organizations and other governmental entities to attempt to provide services, including housing, to people who are experiencing homelessness."

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

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