The contract law enforcement proposal requested by the Forest Lake Personnel Committee from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in January was sent to the city April 4. The Forest Lake City Council discussed the proposal timeline at its April 10 meeting and set a date for a public open house on the topic for April 18 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Forest Lake City Center.
The proposal, prepared under the supervision of outgoing Washington County Sheriff William Hutton, answers some questions community members have had about what police coverage in the city could look like under county supervision rather than the Forest Lake Police Department, but other details, including how the transition would take place and exactly how much cost differential exists between the proposal and the current police budget, remain unclear.
The proposal estimated that the total adjusted cost to the city for sheriff’s office law enforcement service in 2018 to be approximately $2.9 million, plus about $87,600 in one-time implementation costs. In 2017, the city budgeted approximately $4.04 million for police services, but the actual levy impact is estimated as closer to $3.2 million because several of the costs of the department are reimbursed by items like police state aid or the Forest Lake Area Schools’ contract for school resource officers. City staff told The Times that further analysis is being done to determine exactly how much cost difference there is between the proposal and the city’s current spending, as there are factors in the city’s current spending that may be unaccounted for in the proposal and which may shift the total cost differential.
“There’s things that will reduce that number and things that will increase it,” City Administrator Aaron Parrish said.
Those cost issues, as well as a variety of service and administrative comparisons, will be presented at the open house.
For staffing levels, the proposal centralizes some local police-related services (like record keeping) within overall sheriff’s office operations, and it states that dedicated investigative services for the city will be assisted when necessary by countywide investigators. To that end, the proposal outlines a plan for one commander, three sergeants, three investigators, three school resource officers, 15.5 patrol officers and one office support person. The Police Department currently employs one chief, one captain, four sergeants, four detectives, three school resource officers, 10 patrol officers and two administrative assistants, but the department budgeted for two additional patrol officers this year for a total of 12. The department is currently operating at 10 patrol officers because two patrol officers have left the department this year, and the city has postponed a request to fill those positions while it considers the proposal.
The proposal states that the sheriff’s office expects that its proposed staffing level would lead to “a net increase in available resources on demand.” Hutton told The Times he expected an increased service level because, if accepted as is, the proposal would result in more patrol officers assigned to the city for more hours of patrol and because if the city ever faces an issue that would temporarily require more officers – for example, a tough investigation or a large-scale emergency – the sheriff’s office could supplement investigators or patrols with its countywide staff.
Under the proposal, deputies would not be responding to the city from the county seat of Stillwater, but would instead start and finish each shift in Forest Lake, using the portion of the Forest Lake City Center currently allotted to the Forest Lake Police Department as its operational hub. On the cost, Hutton attributed the $2.9 million price tag to the sheriff’s office’s use o the economy of scale when negotiating with employees, conducting administrative work and spreading other costs across the entire sheriff’s organization when they would normally be borne by just the city. He also noted that some county services that currently are paid for the city, such as its participation in the Washington County Drug Task Force, would be included as part of the sheriff’s contract.
“We maintain and take care of all things needed,” he said.
The proposal and an accompanying set of frequently asked questions stresses the importance both of working closely with city government to align the sheriff’s office with city priorities and being engaged in community outreach. Hutton said that all of the staff positions for Forest Lake would be new positions in the sheriff’s office and that the office would happily interview current FLPD officers for the Forest Lake jobs.
“In Newport, we hired the Newport officers that were currently working with the city,” he said of another city where the sheriff’s office took over services.
During the April 10 City Council meeting, the council chamber was once again packed to overflowing as a contingent of residents protested the proposal process and asked the council to keep the Police Department intact. Several speakers, as well as Councilman Michael Freer, found fault in the level of detail in the proposal, which was primarily made up of information on the sheriff’s office’s functions and history with one page (and an attached few pages of frequently asked questions) directly addressing the specifics of the Forest Lake proposal – “35 pages of promotional package,” as resident John Bodine called it.
Key themes among the night’s open forum speakers included the fear of losing local control of law enforcement and the fear of hidden or unexpected costs when moving to the sheriff’s office. Former New Ulm Police Chief Erv Weinkauf, who moved to Forest Lake after his retirement, raised a number of questions along both fronts, including whether current police officers would be unable to take the new jobs due to changes in commute, how the council would mitigate losing its ability to negotiate with law enforcement unions, how the city would deal with potential legal action resulting from a disbanding decision, and how it would control costs for future sheriff’s office contracts.
“If, after a few years go by, the city believes that Washington County services are too expensive, what recourse will you then have?” he asked.
Resident Nagib Etoll, who works for the Minneapolis Airport Police Department, said it’s his experience than when programs are cut to save money, it’s usually too expensive to bring them back once people decide they’re necessary again. He added that the city jettisoning its police department in favor of a county contract didn’t seem like a good move for a burgeoning, progressive community.
“I just can’t think of anything more ‘small town’ than getting rid of your police department and contracting with the sheriff’s department,” he said.
For his part, Hutton said that the proposal was crafted by watching meetings, gathering information from the city, reading local media reports and taking other steps to glean from residents what they want in their police service. He added that the sheriff’s office has great respect for the FLPD and its operations.
“The proposal was asked for,” he said. “We didn’t go looking for it. Hopefully people agree that it’s a responsible, professional document that will help people make a … decision.”
After setting a date for the open house, the council briefly discussed conducting a phone survey to get more feedback from residents on the topic before voting against the idea 4-1. While the lone favorable vote, Councilwoman Mara Bain, thought the study was a good idea, stating that it might help the council agree on what the community consensus is, the other council members didn’t like the $9,000 price tag or the several weeks it would add to the decision-making process. Councilmen Freer and Sam Husnik added that the opinions of the public are already the talk of the community and are regularly shared with council members.
“I’m sorry, Mara, but I don’t think it’s going to prove anything,” Husnik said.
At the end of the meeting, Freer addressed critics of the council who claim that he, Councilman Ed Eigner and Mayor Ben Winnick have sought to disband the Police Department since the start of the process.
“I haven’t made a decision, and I don’t think it helps for people to accuse people of things that they don’t know,” he said. “I have met with every single person who’s asked. I’ve talked to every single person who’s called, and I’m more than willing to talk to people.”
As the city considers the proposal, the labor union that represents the FLPD’s patrol officers and supervising officers is protesting a contract negotiation move that it views as stalling the bargaining process in order to make it easier for the city to cut police.
Law Enforcement Labor Services reported that during a negotiation session for a 2017 contract for supervisors on March 30 (the contracts for patrol and supervisor officers expired at the end of 2016), the city declined to discuss terms for a new contract and instead would only offer to discuss terms related to the process of laying off officers, including turning in duty weapons and issues pertaining to benefits and time off. The 2016 contract for both groups is in effect until a new one is reached.
Kevin McGrath, business agent for the supervisors group, said he believed the move is a strategy by the city to “run out the clock,” as it would be easier for police layoffs to occur without a contract in place.
“I’m getting the idea that they’re not going to represent the will of the people, that they have an agenda, and the agenda is to disband the Police Department,” he said of city government, noting that he had been prepared to offer a contract that would not increase supervisors’ pay for the next two years. He said the city is obligated to negotiate but added that he got the impression from the city that if the union pushed the issue, the city would be more apt to disband the department.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Parrish said of claims that the council had already made a decision. “I think our bargaining strategy is indicative of the fact that we’re considering our options.”
Parrish said he wouldn’t delve deeply into the city’s labor negotiation strategy but noted that if the city does decide to disband the department – a decision he stressed has not been made at this time – having a new contract in place would make it more difficult for the city to take the actions it needs. According to Marylee Abrams, a labor attorney for the city, disbanding the department while a labor agreement is in place would be considered an unfair labor practice and could violate state law, leading to the city’s wish to temporarily delay contract talks until a decision has been made.
The patrol officer group’s representative was set to meet with the city April 11, but The Times had not received word on the meeting before press time.
The Times requested a cost estimate for how much severance and unemployment costs would be if the department’s officers were laid off, but staff noted that the amount was still being calculated and was expected to be released soon.