Officials in the tiny inner-ring suburb of Hilltop are considering an unusual remedy to resolve an irksome policing problem: too many calls to such places as the Starlite Motel.
The mobile-home hamlet of 766 residents is surrounded by Columbia Heights, which Hilltop pays for police service. The Starlite, a low-budget, 1960s-era motel, isn't overly particular about who gets a room. It draws the most 911 calls in town, mostly for minor assaults, prostitution and alcohol- or drug-related medical emergencies, police said.
Offenses at the Starlite, a middle school and a few other problem addresses -- when factored against Hilltop's tiny population -- have given the village the somewhat-embarrassing distinction of leading the state in crimes per person. Though few of the crimes are serious, they require police time and resources.
To curb the calls, Columbia Heights Police Chief Scott Nadeau has suggested that Hilltop adopt an ordinance charging property owners for excessive calls.
While experts say the idea is relatively new and may be problematic, a handful of metro cities, including Plymouth, Robbinsdale and St. Paul, have instituted some kind of excessive call fee.
Nadeau's own Columbia Heights recently passed an ordinance limiting free police, animal control and code enforcement service to two calls per year for each property. After two calls in a year, the owner can be billed $250 a call. The rule takes effect in January.
"When a business becomes a big draw on our resources, we can't use [those] officers in other parts of the community," Nadeau said. "We feel it is incumbent upon a business to be an asset to the community ... and not bring in unsavory elements."
Starlite manager Tom Brezny thinks the idea is ridiculous.
Police aren't called "unless we have to," Brezny said. "I shouldn't have to be afraid of being reprimanded by a policeman because I called them once too often."
Brezny, who lives at the motel and has been manager about 14 months, said the Starlite hasn't had such serious incidents as stabbings. He said he accepts homeless people with vouchers from the Salvation Army and customers with low-paying jobs.
"Just because you are poor doesn't make you a criminal," he said.
Harlan Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said he hasn't heard of towns imposing excessive police service fees on property owners.
"It is innovative," he said. "We'll stand back and watch and see what happens and whether it is picked up by others."
Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, cautioned that such fees could potentially discourage owners or their employees from calling police about minor offenses. If police are not aware of such offenses, he said, they could escalate to violent crimes.
Through November, the Starlite accounted for 9 percent, or 26, of Hilltop's 291 reported offenses, nearly all of them minor or property crimes, said police Capt. Lenny Austin. Of the 291 reports citywide, only nine were for violent crimes, seven of them aggravated assaults.
Though Hilltop led the state in per-capita crime for at least the past five years, it's had no homicides during that time, according to state uniform crime reports. The city, which has two schools and about 20 businesses along Central Avenue, had 35.5 offenses per 100 residents last year.
At 116 calls through November, the motel leads all Hilltop addresses but could come in under last year's 151 calls, which would mean 2009 brought the lowest number of calls to the motel in five years. Residential areas of Hilltop have few crimes, Nadeau noted.
Police thought they had the Starlite problem licked earlier this year, when its number of calls dropped to five in April. That month the motel followed a police recommendation to hire night security guards and require picture IDs and payment by credit card.
Brezny said he worked with police and continues to check IDs, require credit cards and not accept drunks. "We did more policing, so we get better people that are not so dramatic," he said.
But room rentals dropped along with the police calls, and the motel couldn't afford to keep the guards, said Brezny. Calls jumped to 14 in May.
Still, the tally was less than the 19 calls in May 2008, Austin said. Monthly call volume has remained at 10 or less since May, except for September, when calls hit a five-year high of 21, he noted.
Hilltop Mayor Jerry Murphy said the City Council will consider the excessive call proposal at its meeting next week. He said another option Nadeau suggested was creating a license for the motel and setting conditions that would lead to fewer calls. Murphy, sitting in his mobile home a few blocks from the Starlite, said the city attorney suggested waiting to see how the excessive-call fee does in Columbia Heights.
"We don't want to be their guinea pig," Murphy said. "We will never be able to completely control it [Starlite calls], but the rate has to come down. We will work with the police to the end that we can keep it kind of clean over there."
Librarian John Wareham contributed to this article. Jim Adams • 612-673-7658