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Cities scrape for dollars, even in police budgets

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Kanabec Sheriff's Mora squad cars
Since February, the city of Mora has contracted with Kanabec County for its police protection. Seven officers lost their jobs with the city, a move which saved the city $150,000 a year. The sheriff's department has created a Mora unit, complete with designated squad cars, above.
MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens

Dawn Cierelli felt safer when a police officer came by at night to rattle the door of her bake shop in Mora, Minn., just to make sure it was locked. 

It provided a sense of security she says she lost once Mora joined a growing list of Minnesota cities eliminating their police forces and contracting out or consolidating with other law enforcement agencies.

"I'm very disappointed," Cierelli said. "I believe that as a town we lost our identity when we lost our police department."

Across outstate Minnesota this fall, city officials are wrestling with budget problems that the economy and political pressures are making increasingly difficult. As they try to reach agreement on how much money to spend, how much to tax and how much to guess they will receive from the state, a lot of attention focuses on police and public safety. 

It's a core city service few want to jeopardize, and budget woes often are solved first by cutting library or swimming pool hours, delaying street maintenance or even raising property taxes. But public safety is the biggest single budget item for almost every city and can make a big target for budget cutters.

Over the past 10 years, 63 police departments have folded or were merged into other departments. Others have eliminated officer jobs, and many are no longer able to provide residents with round-the-clock coverage.

In Mora, a city of about 3,600 lying 70 miles north of the Twin Cities, the city council took the plunge earlier this year and folded its police department, opting to save thousands of dollars by contracting with the Kanabec County sheriff's office.

The biggest change you can see in Mora's law enforcement is that newly painted cars carry the words "City of Mora," right below the word "Sheriff." 

Since February the city has contracted with the sheriff's department, also based in Mora. The cut meant seven Mora officers lost their jobs but saved about $150,000 this year. Kanabec Sheriff Steve Schulz says he hired five new, full-time deputies to form a Mora unit within his department to try to make the transition as smooth as possible for residents in Mora. 

"That's a very hard choice for a city council person to determine," Schulz acknowledged. "Do we go away from something we've had forever to try something new, just based on pure economics?" For its half a million dollar a year contract with the county, Mora gets round the clock policing. Two deputies are scheduled both day and night to patrol Mora alone.  

Out on the main highway into Mora at Coborn's Superstore, Dean Randt, manager, says the move to eliminate the police department was controversial at the time, but he's OK with the change.

"We really haven't seen a lot of difference," Randt said. "It was pretty seamless from police into the sheriff's department, very similar service. They've been very active with making sure that we are carding folks -- we do sell 3.2 beer and cigarettes. Very similar to Mora police department."

Mora's budget was hit hard by cuts in state local government aid. In 2009, the city had to absorb a $44,900 cut.  In 2010, the state aid cut will amount to $103,600. And like many cities, Mora's single largest budget item was its police department. 

Mora Public Library
Mora Public Library
MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens

Public safety takes about a third of the roughly $2.3 million in annual current expenditures. If the city has to cut its police spending again, it would negotiate with the Kanabec sheriff's department, possibly hurting what kind of coverage they could expect.

Sheriff's departments in Minnesota are obligated to provide service anywhere there is no other law enforcement agency, but by paying the county, Mora is getting more than it would without such a contract.

"You have to understand what the city is paying for is patrol time and ordinance protection," Schulz said. "There are certain crimes that we have to investigate no matter what. What they're paying for is above and beyond that."

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association represents most of the unionized police in the state. Executive director Dennis Flaherty says budget pressures on public safety are intensifying. His organization favors a different way of responding to that pressure.

"We have a number of consolidated departments and to the best to my knowledge, they're all working well," Flaherty said. "That's the future in our state, particularly because of the rural nature of our state. It's not limited to greater Minnesota. You're seeing it in suburban areas as well. I think you will see more and more of it."

Hundreds of small police departments remain throughout rural Minnesota. Only about half of the smaller departments are able to cover 24 hours a day seven days a week, according to the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training.

"Cities that can't do it, they need to give serious consideration to looking to their neighbors and finding a model that provides that quality service for their neighbors and they're going to be forced to go in that direction," Flaherty said.

One example is provided by the cities of Chisago City and Lindstrom, about 40 miles north of the Twin Cities. Both cities have between 4,000 and 5,000 residents, and they lie about three miles apart along U.S. 8 in the midst of a popular lake region in Chisago County. 

Six years ago, police assistant Terri Taylor would have answered the phone, "Lindstrom Police Department." Now it's "Lakes Area Police Department," which is named after one thing the two cities it serves have in common. The Lakes Area Police Department divides service half and half between the two cities. 

By combining the two police outfits, the department became a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation.  Chisago City administrator John Pechman describes it as getting a million-dollar police department for $500,000. 

When Lakes Area police Chief Kevin Stenson is contacted by cities considering a police merger to save money, Stenson tells them: "Personnel. If you're truly looking to save money you're going to have to get rid of personnel. That's not what we did at Lakes Area. Officers were behind this because they knew their jobs were safe. Handle that first, once you're done with that figure out what services you need to give taxpayers more bang for the buck."

To make sure they're visible and available to people in both communities, officers are assigned to patrol either Lindstrom or Chisago City for four days then switch after their days off. That way officers based in one community are seen working in the other.

One stumbling block for many departments seeking a merger is the ego factor. Deputy chief Bill Schlumbohm was happy to take an apparent demotion from chief of Chisago City. 

"The police departments more than anywhere else are the jack of all trades," Schlumbohm said. "They are the face of government...they are the first call for help literally. You lose that when you lose your department. Even when you go to contract with a larger agency you lose that to a certain extent. You will never have that control that you have with a smaller agency."

Underscoring Mora bake shop owner Cierelli's lament that losing an independent police department represents a lost of identity, Schlumbohm said coming up with a new identity, name and logo for the Lakes Area Police Department took more time than anything else the merger involved. But he thinks the two-city solution has worked and has been accepted in both Chisago City and Lindstrom.

Ground Level: Cities in Crisis
This article is part of MPR News' Ground Level project, aimed at covering community issues prompting Minnesota residents to take action. You can find more on our Ground Level blog and on our Ground Level: Cities in Crisis page.