6/13/2013 2:51:00 PM North Branch policing debate
an agonizing one
The North Branch Police Department got a reprieve Monday night this week, when the city council voted not to continue evaluating contracting for sheriff’s services.
The council listened to another nearly 90 minutes of public comment, similar to what was voiced at the work session June 6 (see other story). Citizens demanded council put this issue of eliminating the police department to a rest, and on a motion by Theresa Furman council agreed 5-0 Monday night to not contract with the county this coming year.
The crowd also called for vote declaring that the North Branch police would never be eliminated, but this isn’t possible. Binding future elected officials to NOT be able to take a certain action is not possible. That’s why we hold elections.
by DENISE MARTIN
It was a tough crowd that Sheriff Rick Duncan faced Thursday night in North Branch. The sheriff brought a powerpoint presentation illustrating potential costs for contracting to eliminate policing costs. The North Branch City Council sought an RFP, for sheriff’s personnel to provide city law enforcement service. Sheriff Duncan was frequently interrupted with jeers from 100 or so people crammed into the city hall foyer and council chambers.
He repeatedly reminded the crowd that this was not initiated by the county. He stated the sheriff’s department and North Branch Police respect each other, work together very well and will continue to do so “...no matter what is decided.” As a public servant he was asked by fellow elected officials to cooperate and he complied. Sheriff Duncan gave numbers on how he could provide patrol hours and supervisory and investigative services, at a basic level. He told the crowd that anything over and above is certainly available, at additional hourly fees, depending on how the city council words the contract. Duncan stated the budget that evening is a bare minimum. He would not feel comfortable reducing the degree of manpower in this contract outline.
The county can beef up the contract, but he wouldn’t jeopardize North Branch’s existing level of law enforcement service by downsizing it. The session was billed as a first attempt at reviewing information. “A learning session for all of us,” is how Mayor Ron Lindquist put it in opening remarks. The community though, has rippled with rumors about eliminating the police department for months. There are pro-police signs in North Branch yards, and in past weeks citizens have spoken at council meetings against the plan. Sheriff Duncan did say he was first contacted in late December when Council member Theresa Furman came seeking information for herself. Council member Joyce Borchardt, not yet sworn into her elected seat, was also in attendance; a revelation that rankled some in the audience. Council member Borchardt did not comment. Duncan explained that initial numbers provided in a follow-up meeting (including North Branch’s chief of police, city administrator, mayor and Council member Trent Jensen) have been honed, to allow for ticket revenues and scheduling methods.
North Branch asked Sheriff Duncan to draft a package looking towards contracting county law enforcement effective in 2014. As Jensen announced preliminary property tax impacts to result in a savings of about $32 for a $150,000 homestead parcel, most of the audience laughed. Even Jensen commented of the differential, “We’re not looking at a lot of money relatively speaking.” Sheriff Duncan presented a seven to eight employee deal (contracts are purchased on an hourly-basis so comparisons are not actual people-to-people headcounts.) Contract costs depend on county-provided vehicles or using the existing North Branch fleet. Vehicle costs are calculated into the formula setting the county hourly rate, but can be excluded, depending on how council wants to proceed.
The police department now is around $1,226,000 for its budget in 2014. To buy hours for county service would be either $669,448 annually (inclusive of overhead for vehicles) or $610,542 utilizing existing cars. The budgetary savings diminish when one time contractural severance of existing police staff, unemployment and other costs are figured in. Sheriff Duncan said any police officer who wants to apply and test for a county position can do so and if they meet sheriff hiring standards they’d be at the top of the hiring eligibility list. The County Board sets restrictions on entering personnel pay grades, however.
North Branch Police Chief Dan Meyer also gave a presentation, stating that according to the Department of Public Safety’s statistics for 2011-- the per capita cost for NBPD is $111.87. This is the lowest of comparable-sized cities in the state report. Chief Meyer also pointed to NBPD’s high case clearance rate, the low number of officers per 1,000 population, and longevity of his personnel (most with 10 plus years employment). The Chief said the knowledge and department’s community public relations are irreplaceable.
Chief Meyer also showed data depicting county hourly rate increases have averaged 21 percent in the last several years, versus the 3.67 percent hike estimated in the sheriff’s stats. “Once you’re locked in...” you’ll have to cover whatever the rate is. Chief Meyer said the department has decreased its budget and is spending $58,000 less than it did in 2007. Council member Jensen thanked Chief Meyer for his professionalism, and said his involvement in finding facts for a process that could result in eliminating the chief’s position, has been commendable.
Jensen added that seeing the county proposal gives him ideas where to tweak the police budget and he said fleshing out the contract idea is “just a first step” in budgeting. Now that minimal basic contract costs are identified, Jensen said the council can “cut and paste” to craft its law enforcement scenario if it desires. Council member Kathy Blomquist asked if there are other cities similar to North Branch’s size contracting for sheriff services and if anybody spoke with them. (Chisago County deputy hours are purchased by Taylors Falls, Shafer, Center City, Rush City and Harris, but they’re all smaller.)
The mayor said Ham Lake and Hugo contract (Anoka and Washington counties.) If the council wants to pursue this they could be contacted. The meeting closed with a question and answer opportunity for audience members to bring up issues. There’s still no estimate for re-starting a department, no clear picture of the “tails” attached to shutdown, and some ambiguity on how the school district resource officer fits in. Council will be drilling deeper into contracting details and will also start to review the police budget.