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FOLEY, MINN. - As they patrol the leafy streets of this small community, Benton County Sheriff's deputies hired by the city for extra protection can stop speeding drivers, rush to calm domestic disputes and haul thieves off to jail.
Soon, those patrols will switch out for something less expensive -- without law enforcement authority. The Foley City Council recently decided to stop paying for about 17 hours a day of extra sheriff's patrols and instead hire a private security firm to cruise the city around the clock.
Sheriff's deputies will still investigate crimes and respond to 911 calls -- just without the extra $296,000 Foley had been spending. The private firm's guards will be part city administrator, part neighborhood watch. Although details such as whether they will carry guns are still being worked out, city officials would like to give them the power to write parking tickets and enforce city rules on nuisances such as barking dogs.
While cities and counties throughout the state are wrestling with state aid cutbacks, Foley, a one-stoplight town about a dozen miles northeast of St. Cloud, appears to be the first to take such a bold measure.
The move raises new questions about safety and fairness in paying for protection. Even the state attorney general has weighed in. "I should note that public safety is the first priority of government," Lori Swanson wrote in a letter urging Foley's mayor and the Benton County Sheriff to mediate the issue; they plan to meet Friday.
The new plan will mean watchful eyes on the streets more often, but some in town worry it will do little good if guards can't do anything about the crime they see.
"If somebody breaks into my garage, I've got to call the sheriff's department anyhow," Foley resident Martin Reberg said. "If somebody steals something and speeds away, they [security guards] can't stop them."
A Benton County Sheriff's squad car sits in a church parking lot as teenagers spill from the high school across the street on a recent afternoon. Driving past the vehicle, emblazoned with the word "Sheriff," students think twice about speeding or squealing their tires, deputies said.
Sheriff Brad Bennett said he wonders whether students -- and others in town -- will feel the same if there's a security vehicle patrolling instead.
Foley's new deal with Eden Prairie-based General Security Services Corp. is expected to cost the city about $210,000 a year, although nothing has been signed yet.
"I believe it will work very well," Foley Mayor Gary Gruba said, noting that simply the guards' presence on the street will deter crime. "If it works in the city of Foley, I think a lot of cities will look at this."
Darwin Fleck, a 42-year resident of Foley, said he thinks the City Council did the best it could. "I think it's great ... you never know unless you try it."
Foley abolished its police department eight years ago and contracted with the Sheriff's Office for extra patrols instead. Since then, state aid to cities has been shrinking. Foley's expected funding has been cut more than $200,000 since 2008.
Earlier this year, the city sought to reduce the extra patrolling to 11 1/2 hours, but Sheriff Bennett said that wasn't enough coverage for the town of 2,600 with a 24-hour grocery store and other businesses.
Foley is "big enough to have police coverage," Bennett said. So far this year, the city has racked up 67 calls for thefts, 19 for domestic assaults and 90 for driving complaints.
Foley's contract made up 4.4 percent of the budget for Bennett's office, which employs 15 patrol deputies along with investigators and other licensed officers.
"It puts us in a difficult situation," assuming the contract dispute isn't solved, Bennett said. "If we have to lay off deputies, it's going to be longer response times."
Foley isn't the first city in the region to use services of a private firm. General Security Services patrols municipal parking ramps in some cities and writes parking tickets in parts of Fargo, said William Leoni, the company's northern regions director.
In her letter, dated Oct. 25, Swanson outlined concerns to the mayor and sheriff about "considerable statutory and constitutional issues" that can arise if security guards go too far, including possible false imprisonment claims if they make citizen's arrests, botched investigations and financial liability for the city.
Cities in other states that have tried supplementing police with private firms have found questionable results, Swanson wrote.
Foley's city attorney, Adam Ripple, wrote back, saying they are working to make sure the guards won't act as police and will operate within the law. He said in an interview that instead of simply ending a contract with the local Sheriff's Office, as other cities in the state have done, Foley is hiring someone to help enforce city ordinances.
Throughout the state, as cities have cut back on their own police forces, sheriff's offices have been forced to handle more. Sheriffs are responsible for some level of law enforcement throughout a county, regardless of whether a city in that county has a police department.
In Itasca County, Marble, population 700, disbanded its two-person department in 2007. The Sheriff's Office was understanding, but unhappy about taking over without any additional funding, Mayor David Lotti said.
Itasca County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Gregg Deutsch said the office has had to prioritize calls as its budget has stretched thinner, too. "If it's not an emergency situation, it might be put on a back burner," he said. "We do what we can."
Lotti said city officials now deal with ordinance infractions on their own. When problems with vandalism and other small crimes developed recently, they hired the Sheriff's Office to patrol for a few hours.
Minnesota Sheriff's Association Executive Director Jim Franklin said population density creates more calls for service. "If you live with your brother or your sister and you share a room, versus if I had my own room, there was a whole lot less cat fights," he said. "It's pretty simple."
The question, Franklin said, becomes whether the rest of Benton County will want to subsidize Foley's emergency calls.
Mayor Gruba argued that Foley, with its larger population, is already "paying our fair share."
The new arrangement is "going to be interesting to say the least," said Larry Andel, a retired teacher who lives in Foley. "In the long run, does it prove beneficial or not? ... I guess, like anything, we'll have to see."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102