No one who lives in a suburban community should be surprised that the residents of Forest Lake rose up this spring to keep their local, 25-member police force from being replaced by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
Residents packed the city council chamber meeting after meeting to make known they support their police department and want it to remain locally controlled.
As you may have heard, the Forest Lake City Council nearly had a complete agreement to have the Washington County Sheriff’s Office provide policing for Forest Lake and eliminate the city’s police department to save taxpayers an estimated $387,000 per year, starting in 2019. Granted, the city might have been able to save money beyond its annual department budget by cutting back on some expenses, such as body cameras and squad car replacements, but that possibility’s exact impact is somewhat debatable.
When the public became aware in January that the council was looking into the possibility of contracting for law enforcement with the sheriff’s office, members of the community of about 20,000 objected and jammed the council chambers for several city meetings, protesting the potential loss of their local police department.
Ultimately, in May, the sheriff’s office proposal was withdrawn, and then the city and police labor unions reached a labor agreement with the police department.
It was a victory for the residents who proved that the people are still in control.
One message came through loudly – people are willing to pay property taxes for close-by, personal and familiar protection. The owner of a median-priced home pays about $882 in property taxes to the city and of that $365 goes to pay for public safety, according to Gayle Bauman, Forest Lake finance director.
There are some who say there are too many police departments in the Twin Cities seven-county area, resulting in overlap and some say wasteful spending.
Years ago, as leaders examined metropolitan services like planning, waste water control and the airport services, the idea of a metropolitan police force was raised. Opposition to that proposal quickly developed and the idea was abandoned.
Next came the question of having a county police system where the county, instead of local police departments, would handle policing. There’s no question counties provide law enforcement and assistance to local police departments. Again, people, through the political process, opposed a countywide police force.
Local police departments recognize their limits and many have law enforcement agreements with neighboring police departments and the county sheriff that seem to work well.
Based on my personal experience when I lived in Elk River, I join those Forest Lake people who defended their local police department.
One Sunday afternoon I was mowing the lawn, I felt a twinge in my shoulder and began to sweat. I went to the house and we called 911. Within five minutes a police officer was in my living room assessing my condition, and several minutes later an emergency medical technician arrived.
I was taken to the hospital where it was determined I needed a heart bypass and had no heart attack.
I am willing to pay more for that kind of protection.
Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers.