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Even policing gets scrutiny as cities scour budgets

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Frank Ochocki
Hendricks police officer Frank Ochocki looks over some paperwork in the office before beginning his shift on Dec. 8, 2011 in Hendricks, Minn.
Photo for MPR by Jackson Forderer

At the end of December, this town of 713 in western Minnesota will disband its police department.

For emergencies, residents will call the Lincoln County sheriff, based in Ivanhoe 12 miles away. Some mundane tasks, like car ticketing during snow storms, will fall to the mayor. The city hasn't figured out what to do about stray dogs and cats.

The Hendricks police department is bare-bones — two part-time officers and no police chief — so it won't take much to pull it apart. The biggest question is the 2000 Crown Victoria squad car. "I don't know if the county wants it," said Hendricks city administrator David Blees. "The county is switching over to an SUV-type car."

Hendricks anticipates saving taxpayers $100,000 or more over the next five years, and Blees is confident the sheriff will provide good service. Still, he worries. "The big question is how much do [local officers] deter crime? It's hard to say at this point."

"Yes, there is crime in small towns," he said.

Waiting for speeding cars
Officer Frank Ochocki is illuminated by an oncoming car's headlights as he watched for speeding cars in Hendricks, Minn. Ochocki said that he still remembers his first day on the job when he worked during a football playoff game in the town 30 years ago.
Photo for MPR by Jackson Forderer

Communities across Minnesota are weighing these same tradeoffs. After whittling away at other services in response to reduced state aid, a struggling economy and declining property values, Hendricks and other cities are even asking just how much law enforcement they need. Some of them are choosing to cut law enforcement to save money.

Since 2000, 60 communities have done away with their independent police departments, according to the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). They've created joint agencies with neighboring cities, contracted with sheriff's departments for patrol time or simply decided to do without anything beyond county emergency response. While cities aren't required by law to provide policing, counties are obligated to "keep the peace" and investigate felonies.

The Anoka County city of Nowthen decided Tuesday evening to forego a contract with the sheriff's office, apparently triggering a reduction in police protection in 2012 for the city of 4,400 residents.

And New London in central Minnesota has asked the Kandiyohi County sheriff's office to patrol less often, a move that will save the city $12,500 in 2012.

"It's a sign of just how lean local budgets have become and how much pressure there is on local officials to keep property taxes down," said Anne Finn, public safety lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities.

"When I'm out talking with city officials around the state, they say we've cut everything we can cut and all that's left is public safety," she says. "The cost of providing services has gone up: fuel costs, energy costs, the cost of training, the cost of health insurance for employees. They just can't do it."

WORKING TOGETHER

There has been ample discussion lately about government "redesign," focused largely on efficiency and collaboration. The idea is that if agencies or jurisdictions can join forces, they may save on overhead and perhaps even provide better services. Officers from different agencies are accustomed to working together and often respond to calls jointly. But arrangements have tended to be informal, geographical lines observed. To some degree that's changing.

"The big question is how much do [local officers] deter crime?"

In St. Louis County early next year, the Duluth police department will move into its new headquarters next to the county's public safety building. Physical proximity will allow the departments to share a records division, a crime lab, a property room and some equipment. "Not only do I get along well with [the police chief] and his agency," said St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman, "but the people who live in Duluth are also my constituents. There is lots of potential for savings in the future."

In western Minnesota, a multi-jurisdictional SWAT team handles high-risk warrants and emergencies like drug raids and hostage standoffs. Formed in 2007, the operation has 13 members from nearby county and city agencies along with the University of Minnesota Morris campus police. It is adding other departments and includes a doctor and a couple of medics.

Each community pays $770 per year. Most contribute an officer or deputy. Team members receive special training to improve skills and learn to work together. They often travel long distances to raids in a donated armored truck and a bus purchased from a rural transit company.

The SWAT team isn't used very often, but the joint effort allows each member to have a service it couldn't afford on its own, said team chair and Pope County Sheriff Tim Riley. "We don't have a department with 52 deputies where we can all work by ourselves. We have to work together with our neighbors."

GOING WITH THE SHERIFF

Often, collaboration entails a city folding its police department and working out an arrangement with the county sheriff for coverage. That can be a difficult decision in cities that have had their own departments for decades, stirring issues of identity, fairness and cost. Recently, the city of Foley broke new ground in Minnesota by opting to hire a private security firm rather than paying the local sheriff for dedicated patrols.

Such policing arrangements vary, depending on the level of coverage a city wants and what it's willing to pay for. On the high end, a city may pay a significant fee for round-the-clock county coverage. On the low end, it may pay nothing beyond county taxes and receive coverage only for serious crimes.

Deputy Chad Meester
Deputy Chad Meester talks with a citizen of Lincoln County at the Law Enforcement Center. Sheriff Jack Vizecky said that the loss of the Hendricks Police Department will put additional pressure on the Sheriff's department and he added, "I don't think there's a government entity that is not struggling right now."
Photo for MPR by Jackson Forderer

"It all depends on what that contract says," said Finn. "Some cities say they want a presence all the time. They want their own deputies assigned to their communities so they can build a rapport with residents. It depends on whether residents expect traffic policing. Do they expect a quick response if someone is caught shoplifting from a business?"

The rates counties charge cities for policing depends on factors like geography and deputy pay and benefits. But they typically fall in the $45 to $65 per hour range, said Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association.

Sheriffs are grappling with tight budgets, too, Franklin said. "But we as sheriffs are concerned because we have statutory obligations." He worries that dwindling resources coupled with growing responsibility — especially for cities that don't pay for dedicated patrols — will affect response times or the ability to respond at all to certain calls. "It gets down to the inability to meet the demands of what statutorily we must do and what discretionarily the public wants us to do."

In Nowthen, Councilwoman Laurie Olmon voted against the proposed sheriff's contract because she thought such arrangements cost too much for what they deliver.

Sheriff Brion Plautz
The 12-bed Traverse County jail keeps pretty full since inmates from several surrounding counties also use the facility, says Sheriff Brion Plautz. For example, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011, of the nine beds occupied seven were being used by non-Traverse County residents.
Photo for MPR by Ann Arbor Miller

"I would like the other cities that have sheriff's contracts to take a look at theirs," Olmon said.

Neil Melton, executive director of the POST board, would like to see guidelines for policing contracts, basically a set of questions a community would ask during negotiations. "Let's establish a template," he said. "Let's not be all over the board on this thing."

Communities must decide just how much and what kind of law enforcement they want, Melton said. "If they contract with the county, the most important component is getting a contract that's specific. Do the officers keep detailed logs of the hours they are there? Or do they just write 'Drove through town.' Small communities need to nail this down."

The sheriff's office in Traverse County, in western Minnesota, provides coverage for Browns Valley, a city of 589 people that folded its police department in 2009. The city used to have a chief and a full-time officer plus two part-timers. But now citizens rely on deputies who work mostly nights. Response times for emergencies can be 25 minutes if a deputy has to drive from the county seat of Wheaton.

"My chief deputy and I will make occasional trips down there during the day as well," said Sheriff Brion Plautz. "As sheriff, I try to get to some of the functions down there so they know I care about what's going on. They like to see that."

View a photo gallery of scenes from Traverse County.

The city pays the sheriff around $130,000 per year to cover wages, fuel and other costs. It also leases a police car for the sheriff. Browns Valley spends less than the $165,000 it took to run its own department in 2008, said city administrator Jeff Cadwell. But he also likes the new arrangement because it solves an officer turnover problem the city used to face.

"We're saving a little bit of money," he said. "But what we mostly did was push the administrative cost of personnel work up the line to the county."

NO CONTRACT FOR BABBITT

An attempted partnership didn't go as well in the Arrowhead city of Babbitt, which considered folding its full-time police department and contracting for services with St. Louis County in 2008. "We are struggling just like every other city," said Babbitt's clerk-treasurer Cathy Klegstad. "We were trying to save money."

But unlike Browns Valley, residents in Babbitt wanted to maintain 24-hour service, and the county said that would cost $424,000 a year, more than the $402,000 the city was spending on its own department.

Workers' compensation, it turned out, was more expensive for county than city employees, said Klegstad. The city decided to keep its department.

St. Louis County Sheriff Litman said he has to recoup the dollar-for-dollar cost of providing additional services so they aren't passed on to county taxpayers. But he said if the city had wanted to negotiate, he may have been able to cut the fee, perhaps by including a nearby township in the equation. "I think it was more a case where they decided to keep their own local autonomy and have control with their own law enforcement agency," he said.

"There are examples where we have provided estimates where the cost is lower to the community," Litman said. "And there are some examples where it's more. It depends on wages and the benefits provided to the staff."

GETTING LESS FOR LESS

In Hendricks, the city will pay $35,000 per year to Lincoln County but it didn't secure a commitment for dedicated patrol hours in return. The fee, less than the city spends now for policing, is a goodwill gesture that will help pay for the additional calls Sheriff Jack Vizecky says his department will inevitably respond to once the city disbands its department. The money will help fund a new deputy.

"There are no hours of patrol scheduled in the contract they signed with the county," Vizecky said. "It's more, if there is something Hendricks needs the county will pick it up."

Still, said Blees, "We're figuring they will be around more than they are now."

Blees is happy not to manage a police department anymore and thinks other cities in the county may explore contracts as well. "Outside of the payment, there will be less for us to take care of and maintain."

"I think other cities will be watching what's happening here," he said.