Surprised by depth of agonizing

By Curtis Gilbert

MPR News

I’ll admit it. I was surprised by what happened this year in Foley and Nowthen.

The surprise wasn’t that the communities weighed reduced police coverage against higher taxes — from the moment the stories broke, saving money on public safety seemed a distinct likelihood. As a reporter on our Forced to Choose project, what I didn’t expect was the depth with which leaders agonized over the decision, changed their minds and in some cases changed them back again.

“We’ve done a lot of big things (since becoming a city in 2008),” City Councilwoman Laurie Olmon told me when Nowthen was weighing the choice back in late October, “but I think that’s about the biggest.”

At the time, Olmon strongly supported raising the city’s taxes by as much as 27 percent in exchange for a sheriff’s deputy to patrol the city eight hours a day.

“I’m very scared about this. I’m scared for you,” Olmon told the 150 residents who turned out for a community meeting on the subject last month. “We have domestic violence in Nowthen. We have rape in Nowthen. We have crime in Nowthen.”

But over the course of the next month and a half, those tax-averse residents changed her mind. They also won over another Nowthen city councilmember.

“I just don’t feel in my own mind, in my own heart that we can go without any protection at all,” City Councilman Harlan Meyer told me when I first interviewed him.

Early this month, Meyer and Olmon both voted to hold the line on taxes. Both said extensive citizen lobbying convinced them the city would likely be fine with whatever minimal protection the sheriff would give them next year.

But in the end, Nowthen leaders shifted somewhat again and seemed finally to find a happy medium, not raising taxes but figuring out ways to shift other costs down the road and still sign a contract with the sheriff.

Elected leaders in Foley also said public opinion was on their side when they chose to hire General Security Services Corporation to patrol their city’s streets rather than the Benton County Sheriff.

“I had three or four people today saying, ‘I think it’s a good idea,’” City Councilman Dean Weber told me following the council’s unanimous vote to draw up a contract with the private security firm back in October.

But as in Nowthen, it’s clear Foley’s leaders wrestled with the decision. A month later, the council voted to restart negotiations with the sheriff — only to reverse itself again just two weeks later.

In spite of Attorney General Lori Swanson’s warnings against the arrangement, private security guards will provide public safety in Foley starting Jan. 1.

The League of Minnesota Cities has predicted for years that declining state aid would lead to cuts in public safety, “but really this is the first year in 2011 that we’ve seen ample evidence that that’s starting to be the case,” executive director Jim Miller told me.

Miller said so-called “core services” are understandably last in line for cuts. But since police service makes up the largest chunk of most city budgets, it was inevitable those expenditures would eventually become targets.

Forced to Choose showed us how that happened — and what a difficult decision it was for the local leaders.

(See also what reporters Jennifer Vogel and Tom Robertson and editor Dave Peters take away from their Forced to Choose coverage.)

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