Forest Lake MN Jan 21 2017 Forest Lake is considering a plan to disband the city’s police department and contract with the Washington County sheriff’s office for investigative and patrol services.
City officials have asked Sheriff Bill Hutton to prepare a request for proposal for law enforcement services.
“Innovation and adjustment in service delivery represents change, but we feel confident in the Sheriff’s Department’s track record for serving many Washington County communities,” Mayor Ben Winnick and City Administrator Aaron Parrish wrote in a letter to Hutton. “We feel that the potential exists for synergy, efficiency and cost savings.”
Forest Lake “has a great police department with amazing officers who are dedicated to serving our community,” city officials said in a statement to the Pioneer Press on Thursday. “Asking for a proposal does not mean there are any issues related to the department or its officers.”
Forest Lake already partners with the Washington County sheriff’s office and other agencies for services such as dispatch, radios, records management, Drug Task Force and SWAT, the statement said.
Hutton, who was been sheriff since 2006, stressed that Forest Lake officials initiated the request and that his department did not lobby for the work. He said it could take sheriff’s office staff several months to prepare a proposal to present to the city.
“This is the city reaching out to us and saying, ‘Hey, could you take a look at this to find out what the cost would be to provide police services?’ ” he said. “It’s very similar to what Newport and Birchwood did. … There is no doubt that we could do it; that’s what we do: We contract with cities. We have a history of providing police services to a variety of communities, and if Forest Lake agrees to the proposal, we could provide that level of policing.”
In addition to providing police services to six townships in the county, the sheriff’s office provides police coverage under contract to Mahtomedi, Dellwood, Willernie, Birchwood, Hugo, Grant, Lake Elmo, Scandia, Afton, St Mary’s Point, Lakeland, Lakeland Shores, Landfall, St Croix Beach and Newport. It also provides police coverage to the Mahtomedi School District and Oak-Land Junior High in Lake Elmo.
Forest Lake, population 19,000, has 25 full-time police officers — a chief, a captain, four sergeants, four detectives, 12 patrol officers, three school resource officers — and two administrative assistants. The department patrols 36 square miles.
The sheriff’s department contracts with nearby Hugo, population 14,000, and provides a sergeant, investigator and six deputies at the cost of about $950,000 a year, Hutton said. The Hugo deputies work out of an office at Hugo City Hall and at the city’s public works department, he said.
“Our deputies report there,” Hutton said. “They don’t come to the sheriff’s office.”
HOW IT WORKS IN NEWPORT
Newport is the most recent city to make the switch to Washington County coverage; the sheriff’s department has been providing police services to the city in southern Washington County at a cost of about $696,000 a year since mid-2015, Hutton said.
The switch has meant a savings of about $170,000 a year, said City Administrator Deb Hill. The sheriff’s office provides round-the-clock coverage to the town’s 3,200 residents — and that includes a sergeant and five deputies, most of whom previously worked for the Newport Police Department, she said.
“It’s the economy of scale that the county brings in,” Hill said. “We don’t pay for investigative services and, of course, we don’t need the chief. We don’t have the replication of services. It turns out we’ve saved a lot in (information technology) services. The police were fairly heavy users, and we don’t have those bills anymore.”
Another added bonus: If a deputy is on vacation or calls in sick, the sheriff’s office sends over another officer to fill their shift. “We are never short,” Hill said. “We actually end up having more coverage.”
Hill said Newport officials passed on the cost savings to the residents; the city council decided to reduce the city’s levy by 6 percent, or $150,000. “It went back to the citizens,” she said. “It’s a bold move for Forest Lake, that’s for sure. But $170,000 for a small community like us, that’s a lot of money.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Forest Lake officials plan to ask for public comment and police feedback on the sheriff’s office’s proposal after it is presented to the Forest Lake City Council. Any decision to enter into an agreement with the sheriff’s office will be made by the council, city officials said.
“The city … has a history of delivering services through innovative approaches,” Parrish said in a statement. “At this point we are making the request of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department to see if contracting law enforcement services is an option.”
In the letter to Hutton, Winnick and Parrish said they often hear from people pleased with the sheriff’s office’s “quality of service” provided to Forest Lake Township before the township merged with the city in 2000.
“In addition, we often hear positive feedback on the efficiency and effectiveness with the services you provide to the communities adjacent to Forest Lake,” they wrote.
Forest Lake has created a web page to provide more information and collect relevant documents as they become available, at cityofforestlake.com/249/Current-Projects.
Twin Cities Pioneer Press