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.
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.
“City councils and city managers are always going to question are they getting the best value. That’s their job,” said Ramsey County spokesman Randy Gustafson. “They seem to understand what the costs are. That hasn’t really been an issue.”
In Anoka County, the sheriff’s office uses a formula that takes into account calls for service, land area and the amount of proactive police time needed to serve the population. For Bethel, that’s a little under two hours of deputy time a day. For Andover, that’s 16 full-time deputies.
And then there are economies of scale from collaborating.
“They get full use of the crime lab, all our services — every department, every specialty we have they get,” said Anoka County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Paul Sommer. “They are getting a fully staffed, fully trained law enforcement agency that will provide them with services well beyond anything they can afford themselves,”
Leaders in both the Anoka and Ramsey county sheriffs’ offices stress that cities pay the actual cost for service. There’s no upcharge.
“We don’t make money. We cover the costs of providing the services,” said Gustafson with the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office.
Andover City Administrator Jim Dickinson said his city is comfortable with its contract with the sheriff. Deputies respond to about 10,000 calls a year in the city.
“We feel are getting a good deal,” Dickinson said, though “there were some increases this year.”
Those were largely tied to rising costs of retirement benefits and insurance.
“We do an evaluation each year to determine the number of calls coming through and how they are spending their time being proactive and reactive,” Dickinson said.
Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804