Columbus shopping around for new police services

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 10, 2013 - 2:05 PM

County sheriff’s offices often contract with smaller cities to provide police services. In Anoka County, the city of Columbus is exploring whether that’s its best deal.

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Anoka County Sheriff’s Deputy Travis Bolles worked one day last week with police in Columbia Heights. That city has its own police department (budget: $3.9 million) and does not contract with the Sheriff’s Office.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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It’s supposed to save the city of Columbus money over the long haul.

But costs for contracted law enforcement services from the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office will jump 14 percent in 2014. Part of that will pay for more dedicated patrol time.

Still, the overall $282,000 tab has city leaders curious about whether they could find a better deal elsewhere. Columbus, with a population of nearly 4,000, doesn’t have a police department; it contracts with the sheriff for patrol and other services.

The city has set up a police task force and is conducting a resident survey on police services. The mayor said Columbus will likely issue requests for proposals to see whether any neighboring police department is interested, and might study the cost of starting its own department.

“We are just trying to get the best service for the least amount of money for our constituents,” said Columbus Mayor Dave Povolny. “We are reviewing what we really need, how much it costs and where we are getting it from.”

The law enforcement contract makes up a big chunk of the city’s $2 million budget, said City Administrator Elizabeth Mursko. Each year, sheriff’s deputies respond to about 1,800 calls for service in Columbus. A dedicated deputy also spends 10 hours a day in the city patrolling, handling warrants and conducting day-to-day law enforcement business.

Sheriff: ‘I encourage them’

Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart said he welcomes the scrutiny by the city because, in the end, his department offers the most extensive complement of services, including SWAT, canine and patrol. It’s also less expensive than small cities’ setting up their own departments when you add up the cost of labor, facilities, training, management, equipment and insurance, Stuart said.

“I encourage them. It’s part of being fiscally responsible,” he said. “But make sure that public safety remains paramount. You might be able to get something for 90 percent of the cost, but you might end up with 30 percent of the service. We want to make sure citizens don’t have their safety compromised.”

This isn’t the first time services with the sheriff’s office have been under the microscope. Two years ago, the city of Nowthen initially chose not to include money in its 2012 budget for sheriff’s patrols. The city and sheriff’s office eventually reached a deal after the sheriff threatened to respond only to emergency calls, as required by law.

Cities with sheriff’s contracts

Eight Anoka County communities contract with the sheriff’s department for services: Andover, Bethel, Columbus, East Bethel, Ham Lake, Linwood Township, Nowthen and Oak Grove. The contracts account for $5.7 million of the sheriff’s nearly $30 million in annual expenditures.

When times are tight, city councils take a close look at those contracts, the sheriff said.

Contracts range from a low of $39,000 a year for tiny Bethel — population 470 with .97 square miles — to about $2.62 million for Andover, population 31,000 with 35 square miles of territory.

In this era of cost saving and collaboration, Sheriff Stuart said it makes sense to keep partnerships that work.

“With small police departments folding, it’s counter-intuitive to start a police department when you can have a contract with someone else,” Stuart said. “I know we provide great service.”

The city of Ramsey will spend $3 million for its police department this year. The city of Columbia Heights spends $3.9 million, and the city of Roseville, in neighboring Ramsey County, will spend $6.3 million for its department.

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office provides law enforcement services for seven communities, ranging in cost from $86,000 for Gem Lake to $1.8 million for Shoreview.

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