For Nowthen, the free ride is over.

About 3 1/2 years after Burns Township became the city of Nowthen, Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart has given the city notice that it is time to start paying for the patrols and emergency response it received for free as a township - or see law enforcement service diminish significantly.

Up to this point, 911 calls in Nowthen have been covered by a "floater" deputy and those under contract in neighboring cities, such as Andover, Oak Grove and East Bethel, which pay from half a million to more than a million dollars each for patrol and emergency response. Response to those calls in Nowthen -- 1,303 in 2010 and 1,470 in 2009 -- also comes from municipal police departments in Ramsey and St. Francis.

Of course, residents of Nowthen pay Anoka County taxes that support the Sheriff's Office; those funds go to support the jail and administrative costs. Once a city incorporates, however, under state law it has the responsibility to decide whether to cover law enforcement by contract with the sheriff, or create its own department.

"Nowthen is the only community in all of Anoka County that does not provide any funding for dedicated law enforcement coverage," Stuart said. He said that there is a strong tradition of mutual aid in the county. "If one community is not contributing, then it's no longer a give and take. It's just a take. Other communities say, why are they getting all of this for free and we're paying for it?"

City officials have been discussing the issue since Nowthen's incorporation in 2008 but had not yet come to a decision.

About 150 of the city's 4,400 residents turned out for a town hall meeting Thursday to discuss law enforcement options. None was happy about the prospect of higher taxes, and many were annoyed with the city for putting off the decision so long.

The sheriff recently offered the city two options for a contract, costing residents either $84 or $174 a year on an average-valued $300,000 home, depending on start date and equipment costs. The less costly option would increase the second year; the more costly would decrease.

Nowthen's preliminary budget includes an allocation for the cost of a contract with the Sheriff's Office; it has until Dec. 31 to remove it. By state law, the Sheriff's Office is required to provide a minimal level of emergency service. Outside the metro area, it's not uncommon for cities and counties to get the minimum level of service from their county sheriffs, said Anne Finn, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities.

"If there are one or more cities that say we think our residents want a higher level of service in the way of patrols or the school liaison officers or someone to help with nuisance or respond to the kind of calls considered not life-and-death situations, then they pay for that," she said. "The City Council has to decide if that's a community need for that city."

Nowthen isn't the first city to wrestle with how to pay for law enforcement. East Bethel, Ham Lake and Oak Grove, which have contracted individually for service with the Anoka County sheriff, considered creating a tri-city patrol district to share sheriff resources. Each ended up signing its own new contract, for fewer patrol hours than they'd had before. The city of Foley recently decided to end its agreement with the Benton County sheriff; private security guards will take over patrol and routine enforcement duties.

In an unofficial poll at Thursday's meeting a narrow majority said they would be willing to pay for a sheriff's contract. Others said they were willing to see what happens without it.

"Crime is low," said resident Debbie Mahutga, adding to applause, "What are you going to patrol, the cornfields?"

But Stuart noted that those 1,303 calls last year included domestic and other assault arrests, burglaries, felony warrant arrests and more.

"Morally and ethically, I will not leave you hanging in a life-and-death emergency," Stuart told the crowd. But failure to approve a contract could mean slower response times for emergencies and much slower response to routine calls like burglaries or car break-ins.

Resident David Fitch noted that he has had the experience of feeling unsafe at times.

"We don't all live in the very best of neighborhoods," he said, adding though he is a fiscal conservative, he'd compare the price of the costlier sheriff's contract to a monthly take-out pizza. "I don't want to risk the safety of my wife and daughter and myself for the cost of a pizza."

Still, a few said they can't afford any tax increase. Resident Jeff Porter was among those who said the city needs to solve the problem with existing resources.

"I think we're paying enough taxes," he said vehemently. "I think there's enough [revenue] there and they're not spending it right."

Mayor Bill Schulz said, as a resident, he was inclined to sign on with the sheriff's contract, though he's reserving his vote for more feedback.

Residents can weigh in again at the city's Truth in Taxation hearing at 6 p.m. Dec. 13. The council will need to vote on the matter later that evening.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409