As cities across Minnesota and the country are grappling with calls to defund or downsize police departments, several central Minnesota cities are expanding.

Sauk Rapids City Council approved on March 8 site plans for a proposed 9,500-square-foot expansion for police department use at its city government building. And the Waite Park City Council in January approved asking for legislative authority to fund a new $20 million public-safety facility with a half-cent sales tax.

"We need more space. We grew a little bit faster than we thought we would," said Perry Beise, Sauk Rapids police chief. "As we build more apartment buildings and more houses are going up and businesses growing — as that happens, there's a need for additional police officers to respond for those calls for service.

"We want to be prepared for that," Beise added. "Otherwise we're sitting on top of each other." The city has 17 police officers, two of them hired in 2019 to meet demand.

Officials cite the need for additional officers and facilities following recent population growth.

Cities surrounding St. Cloud have grown faster than the city itself over the past decade. St. Cloud grew 4% to 68,500 residents from 2010 to 2019, according to census data.

Meanwhile, Waite Park grew 5% to 7,800 residents; Sauk Rapids saw 10% growth to 14,150; St. Joseph's population rose 13% to 7,350, and Sartell jumped 18% to 18,900 residents.

That growth — along with the need for upgraded technology and amenities — was the impetus behind Sartell's new $13.1 million public services facility that opened in August.

The police department was formerly housed with city offices in a 1970s-era building, which was remodeled after city staff moved into a new building about two decades ago.

"We probably outgrew that building within four years of being there," said Jim Hughes, Sartell police chief.

The new 47,000-square-foot building also houses the city's fire department and the site has room for a building expansion if needed, Hughes said. The department has 21 full-time officers, including one hired in February to meet demand.

The building features expanded evidence-processing and storage areas, three short-term holding cells and what Hughes believes to be the only safe room at a Minnesota police station.

The safe room is accessible 24 hours a day and allows people who are reporting a crime to wait in a secure room that's locked to the outside so a perpetrator can't gain access. The room also serves as a place for officers to fingerprint people without having them enter the department's secured area.

The Sartell building, planned to accommodate 30 years of growth, is much larger than the previous building.

"Basically our old building fits in our current garage," Hughes said.

St. Joseph built a new police department and government center four years ago and has plans to add another full-time officer to its force of nine this year. St. Cloud's police force has grown from 108 to 111 officers in that same time.

Waite Park's police department is housed at City Hall. Although the city has only about half the residents of Sauk Rapids, it has one more full-time police officer — 18 — and will grow to 21 officers by the end of the year, said Dave Bentrud, Waite Park police chief.

"The department has doubled in size in the last 12 to 13 years," Bentrud said. He attributes the growth to the city being a regional center that swells to more than 30,000 during the daytime as visitors shop, dine, work and pass through the city. "You can't tell where St. Cloud ends and Waite Park begins."

Because of the city's large number of retailers, it ranks high on lists for crime per capita, Bentrud said.

"When you have a lot of retail theft — forgery, fraud, counterfeit checks, shoplifting — all of those crimes get put on our residents," he said. "It skews things."

If the Legislature approves the city's request, Waite Park plans to ask voters to approve in 2022 a half-cent sales tax to fund a public safety facility. City officials are considering building the facility near the new amphitheater, although it's early in the planning process.

"We've outgrown the area we're in," Bentrud said. "We've got two or three desks in offices that were really meant for one person."

The expansion in Sauk Rapids, estimated to cost about $1.5 million, would add new offices and garage space needed to house squad cars and other city vehicles.

"Right now we only have seven parking stalls. We need about 19," Beise said. "Our squad cars cost about $34,000 with another $30,000 for equipment. That's an expensive piece of equipment to leave outside."

Sauk Rapids City Council will consider bids at an upcoming meeting; if approved, construction could be completed this year.

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299