The writing is on the wall -- in green spray paint.

"This is what no cops looks like."

So far, in a Scott County town that says it's trying to save money by abolishing its police department, no cops looks like a mess.

In shops along Main Street in Elko New Market on Wednesday, it was the talk of the town: How could the city council have voted to cut off police service before the county sheriff's department was lined up to take its place? Did the council break the law by making the decision without posting notice on its agenda? Is somebody trying to make the police go away to fend off potential scandal?

And, who wrote that graffiti on a city park shed?

The city council, after weeks of debate, voted 3-2 on April 9 to remove all officers from patrol, effective at midnight, and fully disband the department on May 13. The decision, made although no such action was listed on the posted agenda, has the town of 3,788 buzzing.

"I don't condone the criminal act of vandalism, but I do believe this is evidence of the frustration in our community right now," said Mayor Jason Ponsonby, who, along with Council Member Dennis Melgaard, voted against abolishing the department. "We just eliminated our police department and we don't even have a plan in place."

The other three council members -- Bob Hanna, Denise Schneider and Jim Friedges -- directed city employees to seek a contract with the Scott County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement services. The sheriff's office, which has long covered the Elko New Market area when local police were off duty, is responding to calls from the area now.

Sheriff Kevin Studnicka said he will attend the April 23 council meeting to discuss a contract with the city, but any agreement would have to be approved by the county board. Then, new deputies to fill the contract would need to be hired.

"It's just not something that happens overnight," Studnicka said.

Hanna, who owns a bar and pizza place, was recently elected to the council after running on a tax-cutting platform. He has led the charge to dismantle the police department in order to save money. The department consumes about 30 percent of all city property tax proceeds.

Before the April 9 vote, city staff members told the council that the local police department would cost about $56 an hour to maintain the average 90 hours of coverage per week. For Scott County deputies to cover the town, the cost would be about $66 per hour for 80 hours of service each week.

But Hanna says it's not just about operating costs. The local police station would need to be upgraded or replaced soon if the department stays, and, he said, that could cost millions. "It's not only today," he said. "It's from here on out."

The quick shutdown of the department was necessary, he said, because setting a future date would have provided officers with "too much time to retaliate." He also pointed to an inquiry by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and allegations of racism by some officers. The ACLU confirmed that it is investigating a couple of recent complaints about the department but would not discuss their nature.

Hanna said the word "Hannah," painted next to the other graffiti, is a misspelled reference to him. He said he's not threatened by it, but he wonders why the city hasn't cleaned it up. And though he's not sure who did it, he said "it's pretty bad [that] people are stepping that low."

"It's an adult that's doing it, otherwise it wouldn't be six feet in the air," Hanna said.

Toni Maat, owner of Windmill Feed and Pet Supply -- who proclaims her opinion with a "support your local police department" sign outside the store -- has another explanation.

She thinks it was kids who had a graffiti heyday after learning that the police wouldn't be around, and that the word "Hannah" is just a girl's name, not a misspelled reference to Hanna. Plus, it's not the first time someone has spray-painted something.

"It's been in town before, but it hasn't been this widespread in one night," she said.

She and others in her store Tuesday afternoon said the sudden decision left people feeling helpless, both in terms of public safety and the inability to sway the three council members with public opinion.

"People are not happy," Maat said. "It's not what the community wants."

Police Chief Rick Jensen declined to comment as he stood outside the police station on Tuesday afternoon.

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056