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Baxter City Council: Tie vote stops application for drone funding

A drone flies over the Ironton Barstool races in February. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch file photo)

BAXTER—A proposal to access a $50,000 innovation grant to fund the purchase of drones fell to earth this week, at least for now.

The Baxter City Council took up the request in a split vote and without time to make the funding deadline. The tight timeframe, from Tuesday's city council meeting to Thursday, was listed as one of the chief concern for council members.

The proposal would have accessed the innovation funding from the Staples-based National Joint Powers Alliance. This is the third year the innovation money is available.

"It's a great opportunity," said Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted.

Exsted said the funding would purchase three drone systems—one for the Baxter Police Department, one for the Brainerd Police Department and one for the Brainerd Fire Department. In addition to the equipment, funding would pay for training four pilots for the drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, and hire the assistance of a consulting firm to develop policies and procedures for their use. Exsted said the consulting firm just helped Hennepin County through the process of a UAV policy and now they are the only ones legally flying the drones. Funding was also in the proposal to cover overtime wages. The funding breakdown provided $30,000 to purchase the equipment, $4,500 to develop policies and procedures, $13,000 for pilot training, and roughly $5,000 for wages and $2,500 for the pilot trainer. What the proposal needed was a resolution from a government agency.

Exsted said the idea was the subject of a lot of work behind the scenes for the last several months, but now they were butting up to the deadline.

"So you are saying it's now or never," Mayor Darrel Olson said.

Exsted said it's a yearly cycle, but it's now or never for this year. Exsted reported discussions with Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston and Fire Chief Tim Holmes.

"There is great potential there for public safety, but we have to do it right," Exsted said, adding that's been an internal police department conversation for the last couple of months.

Sgt. David Timm, who hoped to be the UAV pilot for Baxter, also spoke to the council Tuesday. Timm is also a private UAV pilot. He said the drone has a wingspan of about 2.5 feet and can be equipped with a standard camera or a thermal camera. The thermal camera can be used to find a lost person in a wooded area or to find a fire in an area of hazardous materials.

Olson said he has great confidence in the city's police department. Olson questioned if everyone needed one and if they'd be crashing into each other. He noted they are not particularly popular with people, pointing to the protests at the Camp Ripley front gate. Everybody likes dogs, Olson said, of K-9s. Olson said he didn't want it to be an upfront tax burden.

"We are going to have three of them and the county is not one of them," Olson said. "That's an interesting concept."

Exsted said one of the concepts they were looking at presenting was the potential for a regional response team, perhaps like the dive or bomb teams. Baxter could model how it could work in the region and get in on the groundfloor with the help of the innovation funding.

"This is the opportunity to develop a program with their dollars," Exsted said. "Does this mean we are committing to dollars down the road? Not necessarily."

Council member Todd Holman said he supports the concept and no one can argue there aren't really great public safety benefits. Holman said it is a new program and they haven't looked clearly at the policies that surround it.

"Is it just search and rescue or is it more casual?" Holman said. "... We don't have a policy and none of us have talked about it."

Holman said when talking about a city taking on a whole new program, that warrants more time and input on the policy and management.

"I'm just uncomfortable rushing into an actual equipment purchase and a potential program implementation without really seeing the policy first and I know the grant is paying for development of policy," Holman said, adding he'd still like to see some of those pieces first.

Timm said privacy concerns are understood and public safety, search and rescue are obvious drone uses. He said other uses include crime scenes and crash sites in order to reduce further injures, but they were not going to use drones for traffic enforcement to check on permits or those things.

Council member Mark Cross said he was a little biased because he was also a drone pilot.

"I think it's great," Cross said. "It's a new tool. I am a tech backing tool person."

Cross said the same questions came up with the K-9 on when he'd be deployed and what the costs could be. It's really a chicken and egg thing, Cross said as to whether the city goes after money to develop a policy or spends $15,000 to put a policy together to see if they want to do this. "I think the grant is a good opportunity to do that. It would be a great tool and asset for the city and county. I'm in favor of this."

Council member Quinn Nystrom said she liked being proactive instead of reactive. The technology holds great promise for public safety and for rural areas, she said.

"I would be supportive of it so we can explore it more as a city," she said.

Holman asked if the Brainerd City Council supported the effort. Exsted said the council hadn't addressed it but the department heads and administration were aware of the funding opportunity. Crow Wing County offered a letter of support for the funding.

Holman also questioned who comes together to determine what is appropriate and when the camera footage can be used. Exsted said he believes in collaboration and would bring everyone in and work with the consultant. Exsted said he understands it is a hot topic and if there is concern enough for a pause, but he felt confident enough in what they have put together to this point to bring it to a consultant who can lead the conversation.

"I'm not against it, I'm against the Thursday deadline," Olson said, adding he'd like to see more fact gathering and noted the potential for a future funding opportunity.

Cross made a motion to approve the funding application, which Nystrom seconded. The vote ended in a 2-2 tie, with Olson and Holman opposed. The motion failed with the tie. Council member Steve Barrows was absent.

Olson said he'd like to bring it back and talk about it.

RENEE RICHARDSON, associate editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz.

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