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Nowthen voters gather to grapple with cost of public safety

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Jeff Porter
Jeff Porter, a long-time resident of Nowthen, Minn., opposes a tax increase to pay for police protection. "I think we're paying enough," said Porter at a November 3, 2011, town meeting. "I think there's enough money there. I just don't think they're spending it right."
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

In the north metro city of Nowthen, citizens appear divided over whether to accept a property tax increase, or a significant reduction in police service.

With a population of 4,400, it's the only city in Anoka County without a police department or a contract for law enforcement coverage. Things have been that way since the 1800s, even though the town depends on the Anoka County Sheriff to keep the peace.

Sheriff James Stuart has threatened the cut back Nowthen's police service if the city doesn't sign a contract for dedicated patrols next year. But that could cost as much as a quarter-million dollars, and force the city to increase its tax levy by more than 25 percent.

Close to 150 residents turned out Thursday night for a community meeting on the issue, and some residents voiced skepticism that the town needs much in the way of police protection at all.

"It feels like you're trying to scare us into thinking we're in the new crime capitol of the north," resident Marlene Ortman said at the meeting. "You know, people move to the country, they don't expect everything to be like it is in the city."

Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart
Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart answers questions at a public meeting in Nowthen, Minn., on Nov. 3, 2011. Citizens there are divided over whether to accept a tax increase or a significant reduction in police protection.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

But resident David Fitch says public safety is worth the price. He pointed out the tax increase would average out to less than $20 a month per household -- the price of a pizza.

"I'm very much a conservative both socially and fiscally for government at any level," he said. "I will draw the line though, over public safety and the cost of a pizza."

At one point, City Councilman Harlan Meyer asked for a show of hands from the audience. Roughly equal numbers supported and opposed raising taxes to pay for police services. But a larger number didn't raise their hands at all.

Note: MPR is covering the Nowthen public safety debate as part of our ongoing series Forced to Choose.