There is no question the Washington County Sheriff’s Office is a professional organization. Sheriff Hutton and Chief Deputy Starry lead a team of dedicated deputies, and Forest Lake residents benefit daily from the services they provide. The question before our city is whether the Forest Lake Police Department should be disbanded and primary law enforcement services contracted through WCSO. I would contend there are five primary reasons why a compelling case has not been made.
We lose local control.
Currently, Forest Lake residents, through their election of city officials, control every aspect of services provided by the Forest Lake Police Department. We control budget, leadership, staffing, policies and day-to-day operations. Under a WCSO contract, this control is transferred to the Washington County Sheriff and Board of Commissioners, all elected officials with very few ties to Forest Lake.
Cost differences are not significant or guaranteed.
As of press deadline for this column, only estimated first-year costs have been proposed with first-year savings of about $300,000, which is less than 10 percent of the annual police budget. This does not include one-time transition costs, which also have not yet been fully disclosed and are likely substantial. It is important to note that this will not be a fixed cost contract. The city of Forest Lake will be charged based on actual direct and indirect costs incurred. The loss of local control, coupled with a variable-cost contract, results in a less certain financial future for the city. Contrast that with FLPD’s history of performing within budget.
There is no material difference between proposed WCSO staffing and FLPD staffing.
The WCSO proposal includes 25.5 licensed deputies plus one administrative staff. Today the FLPD is budgeted for 25 licensed officers plus two administrative staff. While it has been touted that the WCSO plan includes higher patrol coverage, the FLPD could make the staffing adjustments today, if desired, to meet those same objectives.
Many of the proposed services are services we already receive and are built into Forest Lake taxpayers’ Washington County taxes.
The WCSO proposal includes a full scope of services. It is important to note Forest Lake residents enjoy many of those same benefits today. Services already paid for and provided to us include the drug task force, SWAT, investigations, computer forensics, human trafficking, K-9, dispatch, detention, civil process services, water parks and trails, and detention and corrections.
A contract with WCSO is unnecessarily punitive to current FLPD officers and their families.
While WCSO has expressed interest and a need to hire current FLPD officers, if a WCSO contract is pursued, FLPD officers will have their employment terminated and will have to go through a competitive hiring process with WCSO. If hired, they may not be assigned to the Forest Lake contract. The common quote we’ve heard that “It will be the same officers in a different colored uniform” simply is not true. In discussions with the sheriff’s office, I have learned that all newly hired deputies will likely start at a beginning patrol rank, losing all seniority and associated benefits. Is this how we treat our FLPD officers who put their lives on the line for our community every day?
In conclusion, good decisions should be evaluated for risk. There are simply too many risks, uncertainties, and unanswered questions in the WCSO proposal to justify the marginal expense benefits proposed. A compelling case to disband the FLPD has not yet been made.
Mara Bain is a Forest Lake City Council member.