There’s nothing subtle about the fight to keep a police department in Newport.
Right across the street from City Hall there ripples a good-sized protest sign, on the property of retired Newport cop and 55-year resident Fred Leimbek.
“If we give up our police department,” he said, “what next? It’s part of our identity. When the council took a preliminary vote, one of them hollered out an unhappy ‘Nay!’ ”
Both sides expect a lively evening on Oct. 15 when the City Council convenes a public hearing on whether to sign up for police services with the Washington County sheriff.
The change, if approved, will save the tiny city close to a million dollars in the first five years, said city administrator Deb Hill.
“Opponents are spreading a wide variety of misinformation,” she said. “Some say there’ll be no policing in town here, the officers will be behind a desk in Stillwater. Actually we will keep our officers, who will become employees of the county, all of them housed right here.”
The Sept. 30 retirement of the city’s police chief created ideal timing for the change, Hill said. Much of the savings stem from the ability to get along without a chief and a chief’s vehicle without actually dismissing an incumbent and depriving that person of a living, she said.
Karla Bigham, the county commissioner for the area, stressed that the city approached the county and not the other way around.
“I’m obviously supportive of the decision of the local community,” she said. “But I would say that it’s in the best interests of Newport to have the discussion with Cottage Grove and St. Paul Park about collaboration of services and definitely to listen to the public on their wants as far as services in their community.”
Collaborating with the two neighboring suburbs, rather than contracting with the county, is still in the mix, but there is a draft agreement with the county.
“We met with Cottage Grove and St. Paul Park,” Hill said, “but the county has a turnkey operation that can turn on a dime. They know what the costs are, they’ve been doing it so long [the sheriff’s office polices 21 smaller communities] so they are not reinventing the wheel. There’s a bigger economy of scale to make the cost savings real.”
If it contracted with the county, the city would need two squad cars rather than six, a huge savings itself, partly because it wouldn’t need backup vehicles: the sheriff has a fleet.
Newport (pop. 3,469) bears the second-highest per capita policing costs in the county, according to a fact sheet compiled by city officials: $247 per resident per year, behind only Oak Park Heights and several times as high as places like Lake Elmo and Grant.
The city could save close to $200,000 a year against a general fund budget of $2.5 million, applying the savings to tax reductions or other needs.
Public testimony at the Oct. 15 meeting will start at 6 p.m. The council could vote on the issue that night or Nov. 5.