Open house digs into police proposal details

The residents of Forest Lake got a closer look at the details of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office proposal for contract law enforcement in the city during an open house at the Forest Lake City Center April 18.

The open house took place after press time, but the city provided The Forest Lake Times with the details of its presentation ahead of deadline.

The open house information was collected and curated by city staff, principally City Administrator Aaron Parrish and Police Chief Rick Peterson. The information examines the pros and cons of switching Forest Lake to a contract law enforcement model (which would lead to the disbanding of the Forest Lake Police Department), as well as to keeping the city’s public safety model as is.

The open house was also set to look at comparative costs and services between the contract law enforcement proposal and the current public safety plan, as well as between the Forest Lake Police Department and other departments and law enforcement models in other Minnesota cities.

“I am excited for our Police Department to showcase and display our many strengths, talents and cost saving measures we have taken over the years,” Police Chief Rick Peterson wrote in a statement to The Times. “I believe the open house will answer the question whether the Forest Lake Police Department’s budget is out of line with other comparable sized cities. It is not.”

Peterson was not the only city official to express excitement for the proposal and comparison to be put on display for the public.

Mayor Ben Winnick said he hoped the open house (and a digital archive of the information at cityofforestlake.com/virtualopenhouse) would clear up misconceptions about the proposal and what the city would be doing if it accepted the proposal. Perhaps chief among the misconceptions, he said, were the ideas that the city would be getting rid of police service entirely if it disbanded FLPD and that sheriff’s deputies would be responding to Forest Lake from Stillwater. If the city chooses to contract with the sheriff’s office for services and disband the FLPD, sheriff’s deputies would be headquartered in and responding from the Forest Lake City Center in the area that currently houses the Police Department.

“We never considered shutting down policing,” Winnick said. “That’s crazy. Cars aren’t going to be driving from Stillwater.”

Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton, who crafted the proposal, said he’s also had to frequently debunk the myth of Forest Lake-assigned deputies responding to calls from outside of the city.

The open house presentation looks at the financial impact and service levels of both the FLPD and the sheriff’s office contract, as well as case studies from the contract cities of Shoreview and Andover and a wide-ranging benchmarking comparison between Forest Lake’s current law enforcement system and the systems of 13 other metro-area cities of similar population or land area.

While the presentation is multifaceted, it generally indicates that the service levels under the Police Department or sheriff’s office would remain relatively similar. The sheriff’s contract is estimated to be more cost-effective in the long run, while retaining the Police Department is projected to allow the city a greater measure of local control over its policing as well as a greater likelihood that the current group of officers policing the city remains intact.

Finances

The total FLPD budget for 2017 is just over $4 million, but minus revenues the city receives from items like police state aid and school resource officer reimbursement, the city estimates that its net impact on the property tax levy is approximately $3.34 million (a city staff estimate printed in a previous article put this number at $3.2 million prior to more in-depth analysis).

The sheriff’s office proposal is estimated to cost the city approximately $2.95 million in 2018 if approved, though the proposed contract amount is an estimate. If the city accepts the five-year contract, it will pay the sheriff’s office what the actual cost of providing police services ends up being, not the exact contract cost. The estimated net impact to the city is roughly $387,000 cheaper under the contract law enforcement proposal.

However, city staff also looked at how much the city would spend to fund the transition between the FLPD and the sheriff’s office and at some long-term police costs that might be avoided under the contract plan. Should the city accept the sheriff’s contract, the transition is estimated to cost approximately $512,000, most of that made up of unemployment, vacation and severance pay. However, the presentation also proposed that the city could save as much $354,000 over the next five years in additional capital costs that it would likely spend if it kept the FLPD, including the implementation of body cameras and replacing equipment and cars.

Winnick said the cost difference is important, stating that money spent in one part of the city budget is money that can’t be spent on a different need.

“There’s only so much money out there,” he said.

Benchmarking

“The open house will show how the Forest Lake Police Department has been operating (in) a very fiscally responsible manner over the years and is in line with other comparable sized cities’ police operating budgets,” Peterson stated in part. The city’s benchmarking survey seems to back that up.

The survey, one of the cornerstones of the open house presentation, looks at the police services of metro-area communities deemed similar to Forest Lake in area or population. The 13 cities compared to Forest Lake range in population from roughly 19,700 (Stillwater) to 31,700 (Andover), plus Hugo, which has a significantly lower population (14,352) and calls for service total (4,788) than the other cities, but is a neighbor of Forest Lake and includes a similar square mileage to the city (Forest Lake’s estimated population is 20,261).

Of the cities in the survey, Forest Lake is the 12th most populous but is tied for the second largest square mileage at 36. Despite the fact that its population is smaller than most of the cities in the survey, its 13,856 calls for service in 2016 were sixth-most in the survey, surpassing more populous communities like Shoreview (10,369 calls), Andover (8,830), Prior Lake (11,198) and others. Of the cities, Forest Lake is tied for the eighth or ninth-most staff at 27 full-time equivalents, depending on how Rosemount is counted (Rosemount has 26 full-time equivalents and six part-time employees).

A spending comparison between the cities is harder to parse, as the cities include different elements in their annual public safety budgets – for example, Forest Lake includes its prosecution costs, while Lino Lakes does not.
While Forest Lake’s total police budget for 2017 is the fourth highest of the cities, when it’s adjusted down after revenues and other balancing factors, it appears to be relatively in line with the adjusted cost of most of the other cities in the survey that have police departments, most of which had adjusted costs that appeared from the survey to range from roughly $3.3 million to $3.8 million. Farmington, Hastings and Elk River were outliers, with costs estimated at more than $4 million.

The contract law enforcement cities each had significantly lower costs than Forest Lake, but the Hugo, Chanhassen and Andover contracts include full-time equivalent levels significantly lower than Forest Lake’s current level of service: 7, 18.2 and 21.8, respectively. Shoreview’s numbers are calculated differently because the city is part of a larger group of cities served by Ramsey County, which treats Shoreview and six other nearby cities as a larger patrol district. The presentation states that 10.4 deputies (plus an addition 0.75 FTE for power shifts and traffic duty) are assigned to Shoreview for patrols, compared to 15.5 patrol officers under the proposed sheriff’s office contract in Forest Lake and 12 patrol officers in the current city police budget.

Service

The open house presentation generally estimates that service profiles between the FLPD and a contract law enforcement approach would not differ too much.

“With equivalent staffing levels(,) it is anticipated that response times with municipal or contract law enforcement would be similar,” the presentation’s values and issues section reads at one point.

The contract includes one commander, three sergeants, three investigators, three school resource officers, 15.5 patrol officers and one office support person. The Police Department is budgeted for one chief, one captain, four sergeants, four detectives, three school resource officers, 12 patrol officers and two administrative assistants. The amount of sworn law enforcement officers under the sheriff’s office proposal is 25.5, compared to 25 at the FLPD, though Hutton has said that the county staff stationed in Forest Lake could call on the larger sheriff’s office apparatus for additional patrol or investigation resources should the need arise. The sheriff’s office has also indicated that it will work to upkeep community policing and outreach in the city at similar levels to what the FLPD does now, and Hutton stressed that the deputies and supervisors assigned to Forest Lake would be based in Forest Lake during their shifts.

“(Residents are) not going to come to the sheriff’s office (in Stillwater) to conduct business with Forest Lake,” he said. “That will all be conducted in Forest Lake.”

Winnick said he was excited for the potential of a greater pool of resources and specialties that the city could take advantage of by working with the sheriff’s office directly, listing human trafficking and elder abuse as two modern concerns he believed the sheriff’s office is well-equipped to tackle.

“One of the parameters of this (proposal) was having equal protection or better,” he said.

Under the contract, the sheriff is the ultimate arbiter of staff assignments and service levels, though he or she will make that decision with the input of city government. The city has a more supervisory approach toward police services under a police department model, working directly with the police chief and city administrator to set service levels and priorities.

Staff impact

One relative unknown – in fact, a matter on which there is some dispute – is exactly what the status of the city’s current police officers will be if the FLPD is dissolved. The current police force has been praised by anti-proposal residents as a huge factor in their desire to keep the FLPD, due to many of the officers’ local ties and knowledge of the area.

“Many of our officers over the past 40 years have been Forest Lake residents and Forest Lake Area High School graduates,” Peterson stated, noting that of the department’s current employees, five live in the city, 10 live in the school district and nine are local high school grads.

The proposal allows for the current police officers to interview for deputy jobs, and Hutton said the sheriff’s office would be “foolish” not to place officers who already know the area on the Forest Lake beat – when the sheriff’s office took over policing duties for Newport, it similarly hired Newport police officers to fulfill those duties.

However, Hutton could not guarantee that all Forest Lake Police officers hired by the sheriff’s office would be assigned to Forest Lake, and he said that whether the Forest Lake officers would be allowed to take the supervisory roles in the contract (like sergeant or commander) remains to be seen.

“We’re trying not to put the cart in front of the horse here because we have other union aspects that we have to deal with within our department,” he said, adding that the sheriff’s office is in the process of sorting out the exact employment rules that apply to the situation.

Councilwoman Mara Bain said that based on her conversations with the sheriff’s office about the contract, she did not believe that local officers would be able to take over supervisory roles right away in the contract because they would not be senior employees.

The open house presentation mentions that the officers who decided to switch to the sheriff’s office would likely not be able to transition their seniority to the sheriff’s office.

The presentation also discusses several other factors involved in benchmarking and comparing the FLPD to the sheriff’s contract and other cities’ policing plans, including labor and staff issues, liability concerns, and more. The documentation from the open house is available in full on the city’s website.

Sheriff’s office presence

Over the weekend, a contingent of residents in support of keeping the Forest Lake Police Department intact, including Bain, began raising concerns on social media that the sheriff’s office has not appeared to discuss the topic at a council meeting and would not be present at the open house to answer questions. Bain told The Times she hoped Hutton or someone else from the sheriff’s office would be willing to come to a future meeting, as she believed that the lack of a sheriff’s office representative answering questions in a public forum was limiting the public access to information about the proposal. She added that the council members, including herself, have met with the sheriff’s office privately on separate occasions and have asked questions about the proposal that the public might find relevant.

“People don’t have all of the material information on what the council members are using to make their decision,” she said.

Hutton said the position is an about-face from his previous interactions with the council, adding that he told the city from the outset of the proposal process that he would not be sending representation to city meetings.

“I told them I would not come to an open house or any similar type of meeting,” he said. “Each one of them (council members) stated that they understood and they understood why I would do that.”

Hutton said he has no intention to shrink from the details from his proposal; instead, he hoped that by not attending the meetings and letting Forest Lake discuss the proposal on its own, he could keep the sheriff’s office from becoming involved in a divisive political process and limit any perception that the sheriff’s office was attempting to compete with local police.

“I don’t want this to appear that it’s competition, because it is not competition in our eyes,” he said, reiterating his previous comments that he has great respect for the FLPD and Peterson’s management of it.

Administrator Parrish said the council would vote on the proposal once it gets a formal draft agreement, which has not arrived from the sheriff’s office yet. He doubted the council would make a decision at its April 24 meeting but did not rule it out.