Wright County Board divides on forensic lab contract, member quits


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In what was an agenda item scheduled for merely 10 minutes of discussion and approval at the June 12 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners turned into a surprising vote and the vow from one commissioner to quit his committee assignment.

While objection was expected to a proposal to extend the county’s current contract with Anoka County for the Tri-County Regional Forensics Laboratory, it was clear the 3-2 board vote denying approval of the extension was unexpected and caught Sheriff Joe Hagerty a bit by surprise.

"I knew there would be opposition, especially from Commissioner (Pat) Sawatzke, but I didn’t think it would lose a 3-2 vote," Hagerty said.

At question was extending the initial five-year contract Wright County has with Anoka County and Sherburne County to operated its own collective crime lab. The issue has been that, while the crime lab has significantly sped up getting fingerprint and drug testing evidence back, the lab has failed to get accreditation to verify DNA evidence. The current contract, which runs through February 2013, is seeking to be extended our five more years so the lab will have the long-term assurance needed to lure qualified professionals needed to get DNA accreditation.

"Everyone has seen CSI shows on TV," Hagerty said. "Juries want to see DNA evidence and we’re getting close to being able to handle DNA evidence through the Anoka County lab. We’re not there yet, but we’re close and, once we can hire the professionals that can help get that done, we can have the full-service crime lab we’ve been seeking all along."

Sawatzke’s issue with the first five years of the lab is how it has been funded. He opposes the funding formula, which is based on population. He provided several statistical comparisons showing that, while Wright County has been funding the lab at a rate of 23 percent of the costs, its percentage of usage has been less than 10 percent. With a significant cost increase coming with the new contract, he wants to see a revision in the funding formula that factors usage and not simply population as the funding mechanism.

"We’re a three-legged stool and we’re the second largest funding source of the three counties," Sawartzke said. "For five years, we’ve been subsidizing Anoka County to have the lab. I just can’t see us paying $365,000 a year when we’re only using about $100,000 of what we paying for."

While Sawatzke made it clear early on that he wasn’t opposed to the work done by the lab, his objection was based solely on the "bang for the buck" the county isn’t receiving in comparison to how much of the project its funding. The board heard from several officials from the sheriff’s and county attorney’s office praising the work done at the lab and the need to continue its inclusion in the tri-county cooperative. Russek, who has sat on the committee since its planning stages in 2006 said that now isn’t the time to get out by refusing to continue the current funding process.

"We’ve been in this since Day One," Russek said. "It speeds things up in preparing evidence for court cases and both the sheriff and county attorney are in favor of this new contract. I’ve brought up the funding process because Sherburne County is in the same boat as us. Unless they’re willing to change the funding formula, there isn’t much we can do. Until then, it will be two counties voting against one and we won’t be in the majority."

Russek made a motion to approve the contract extension, but, when the vote was taken, it failed 3-2, with Commissioners Sawatzke, Dick Mattson and Rose Thelen voting against it. A second motion was made to request a joint meeting of the Wright, Anoka and Sherburne County Boards to discuss the funding issues. That motion passed by a 4-1 vote, with a frustrated Russek voting against it and claiming he’s done representing the board on the crime lab committee.

"I’m done," Russek said. "I’ve tried my best to make our case to the committee and, if Pat or someone else can do a better job, let them give it a shot. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve gone to my last meeting on this issue."

While the denial of the contract is a blow to the potential future of the lab, Hagerty said there is still time to resolve the issues.

"We still have a contract that runs through next February," Hagerty said. "Hopefully some sort of compromise can get done. I’m confident that, once the commissioners air out their concerns, something can still get done because the lab does excellent work and we don’t want to take a step backward after five years of progress."

In other items on the June 12 agenda, the board:

APPROVED a park rule that would prohibit the use of petroleum powered boat motors on the Bertram Chain of Lakes year-round. Electric motors would still be allowed. No other lakes in the county have such a ban and the decision is a rule specific to the Bertram Chain of Lakes, not part of a county ordinance.

ADOPTED a resolution requesting that there be more equity in Park and Trail Legacy grant funding for Greater Minnesota. The first funding cycle of the funds saw 86 percent of all funding dollars split between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the seven-county metro area, with the other 80 counties sharing the remaining 14 percent. While the Greater Minnesota funding has increased in the subsequent funding cycles, it is still at just 20 percent of the total funding.

AUTHORIZED signatures on a purchase agreement for 20 acres of property adjacent to Robert Ney Regional Park. The $100,000 cost would be paid for out of dedicated park funds and not taxpayer dollars.

APPROVED spending up to $8,000 to improve the electrical capacity at the Collinwood Regional Campground. When too much current has been used at the campground, the system has become overloaded and power outages have taken place the last couple of years. The improvement would increase the electrical capacity and eliminate those surge-related outages.

REFERRED to the budget committee of the whole a request from the city of Maple Lake for funding support of the Maple Lake Library.

AUTHORIZED up to $2,500 to seek quotes for a ditch repair on County Ditch 24 near Monticello. Flow along the ditch has been altered by a floating bog that has clogged the ditch line. With concerns over potential flooding, the board approved seeking quotes to break up the debris and remove it.