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Crow Wing County Board: Sheriff asks for budget increase

A proposed budget increase in the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office was the subject of a discussion lasting more than an hour at the county board meeting Tuesday.

A proposed budget increase in the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office was the subject of a discussion lasting more than an hour at the county board meeting Tuesday.

Sheriff Todd Dahl said his budget reflects a changing world for law enforcement, one that requires officers to be ever vigilant for their own safety as well as the safety of county residents.

"I would ask that you understand, or try to understand, the changes that we've seen," Dahl said. "Understand in the last month, seven officers have been murdered nationwide. ... When we go out to let our dogs out in the morning, that we look left and we look right and we look center, and we look to see if there's somebody hiding around that corner. Understand some of the things that we do each and every day to protect the people here, something that I'm very, very proud of."

Dahl's budget request, representing a $626,825 increase over the 2015 budget, includes allotments for bulletproof vests, helmets and shields as well as sniper rifles and new Tasers. The largest portion of the increase comes from personnel costs, accounting for 40 percent of the overall increase.

Commissioner Paul Thiede said he appreciates people who choose to go into law enforcement, but he's concerned about the county's capacity for providing what Dahl said his department needs.

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"From my position, I'm not sure we're ever going to be able to equip you with everything you need in every situation," Thiede said. "That's the bottom line, how I see it."

Thiede said what began as an initiative to provide all deputies with equipment, funded in part by a grant, has evolved into an expectation.

"I understand the desire for that," Thiede said. "I understand the safety issue that you're concerned about for your officers. ... We've moved pretty quickly from beginning that process to fully embracing it."

Dahl said he would not ask for the money to buy replacement and new equipment if he didn't think it was needed.

"It's important for us to move forward as a leader in the central region of the state of Minnesota, to accept the fact that we do what many other counties in the state don't do," Dahl said. "I truly believe that it is the utmost importance for us to move forward and to not remain stagnant and certainly not move backwards."

Thiede said public safety is important to the county's residents, although this does not change the county board's role of being in charge of the budget and how it affects taxpayers.

"I thought we were moving towards ... gaining revenue for your department by offering to house state prisoners," Thiede said. "That issue has been hanging out for a considerable amount of time without any progress. And quite frankly, I probably would be more inclined to embrace gearing up if we capitalized on the revenue prospects that are there."

Dahl said he and Jail Administrator Heath Fosteson have a timeline for reopening a housing unit within the jail currently sitting empty, a unit that could be used to house Minnesota Department of Corrections inmates through an agreement with the state. Dahl added he felt jail staff were not receiving recognition for efforts to increase revenue, efforts that added about $600,000 to the county's general fund coffers in 2014.

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"Although the county board wants it done yesterday, there's a lot more to it," Dahl said. This includes hiring staff to work in the housing unit and ensuring regular required maintenance can occur if the jail were at full capacity.

"We might make $200,000 (from a DOC agreement) and we might make zero," Dahl said. "We might make more than that, we just don't know."

Dahl said his apprehension about depending on a contract with the state dates back to a previous agreement the DOC pulled out of, leaving his office to fill significant budget holes.

Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said she finds it difficult to explain to constituents why the jail remains partially empty nine years after it was first built.

"If there was a school built here, and 25 percent of the classes were never occupied, people would be revolting against the school board and I would be with them," Nystrom said.

Dahl said he was "trying to remain as politically correct" as possible, but he reminded the board in 2013 he asked them to approve a request to hire staff in preparation for reopening the housing unit, and it was voted down 3-2. Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, Chairman Paul Koering and Thiede voted against the request, while Commissioner Doug Houge and Nystrom supported it.

"We were willing to take that on at that time," Dahl said. "I felt that it should have been done."

Koering told Dahl not to worry about being politically correct. He added he agreed with Thiede the sheriff's office couldn't be prepared for everything.

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"I just know that there's a lot of pressure on people out there as far as what they're paying for taxes," Koering said. "All I'm trying to do is just trying to be responsible with the budget."

Koering expressed concern the sheriff was perceiving the county board's desire to maintain or reduce the county's property tax levy as a personal attack.

"We're not picking on you," Koering said. "This is what we expect everyone to do. ... I have concerns that we set the levy and we set it at zero and we don't give you the increase that you want ... that you turn around and sue the county board."

Koering added, "If the county board loses that in the courts, then not only do we have to come up with the money that's not budgeted, then it becomes double that."

After several more minutes of back-and-forth discussion between Dahl, other sheriff's department officials and commissioners, County Administrator Tim Houle said he wished the county board could have its conversation from two years ago again with a different outcome.

"We were nervous about the DOC," Houle said. "I wish two years ago, we would have had a conversation about the risk to us of (denying the request)."

"That was the wrong decision," Dahl said. "Today, we would not be in this position right now if that would have passed."

Houle said he shared the sheriff's beliefs the board's decision was a mistake and he blamed himself for it.

"I wish I would have thought to advise you differently about the risk," Houle said. "The reality is, I'm just a guy doing the best I can, and I'm not perfect. I wish I had that one to do over again."

The county board is set to approve a preliminary property tax levy for 2016 at its Sept. 22 meeting. Once the preliminary levy is approved, the county can decrease the tax dollars it intends to collect but is not allowed to increase the levy.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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