Wright County Board approves tri-county forensic lab contract

By John Holler

Sometimes, the second time is the charm.

A month after voting down a five-year year contract to remain part of the Tri-County Regional Forensics Crime Laboratory, at the July 17 meeting of the Wright County Board, the commissioners reversed themselves — approving a shorter Joint Powers Agreement, but maintaining the same funding formula.

By a 3-1 vote, the board approved the new JPA, but revised a section to include that the funding formula for the cost-sharing provision will be subject to re-evaluation by the member county boards on April 1, 2015. The decision came as a relief to Sheriff Joe Hagerty, who said the enhanced functions of the forensics lab are needed and will be a boon to the county.

“The lab has yet to be certified for DNA testing, which is critical,” Hagerty said. “In order to get the professionals we need to get DNA certification, they have to have some sense of confidence that the lab will have long-term security. That was why we were looking for a five-year agreement. This agreement is shorter, but is necessary for getting the people in place that we need for certification.”

When the forensics lab agreement was rejected by a 3-2 vote, Commissioner Pat Sawatzke questioned the funding formula. While he made it clear he has no problem with the work done by the lab, his issue remained the funding mechanism — which is based solely on population, not usage of the lab. Wright County hasn’t used the lab as often as the other two member counties, yet is paying a significant portion of the operating cost because of its population.

When told by Hagerty that the county can send more items that it currently ships off to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Sawatzke said it would defeat the purpose of the lab and would be little more than padding the numbers and wasting the time of the professionals in charge of analyzing the evidence sent to the lab on things that aren’t currently being sent there because it is effectively irrelevant.

“Nobody up here has spoke against the lab,” Sawatzke said. “But the funding formula isn’t fair. Simply sending more stuff to their lab (to increase usage) is government at its worst.”

Sawatzke made an analogy that Wright County’s participation in the lab is like buying a hamburger. The county is currently paying three times the price for that hamburger and by simply overusing the facility is buying something that isn’t needed. Board Chair Rose Thelen used a different analogy, comparing the county’s participation to being members at a health club.

“If you and I were both members of a health club,” Thelen told Sawatzke, “and you used it seven days a week and I used it three, we would still pay the same amount. I see where you’re coming from, but this is a compromise agreement we all can live with.”

The first time the JPA extension came to a vote, it was voted down 3-2, with Commissioners Sawatzke, Thelen and Dick Mattson voting against the extension. With Thelen clearly changing her mind on the compromise agreement and Mattson not in attendance due to illness, the second time was the charm — the motion passed by a 3-1 vote with Sawatzke voting against the proposal.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the same bad deal we had before,” Sawatzke said. “The only difference is that is shorter.”

Hagerty, however, said that the extension would be valuable for law enforcement, because, once DNA certification is reached, the ability to get quick responses to DNA evidence and potentially prevent crimes in the future.

“Having DNA certification will be a game-changer,” Hagerty said. “I’m glad we got this approval, but now the pressure is on to get certification up and running. While we don’t use the lab as much as we’re paying for —I agree with Pat on that — once we get DNA certification and can send evidence there, we can quickly get the type of hits that will get criminals off the streets faster and potentially lock up someone who could commit more crimes if there is a delay in identifying who a suspect is. Once we have DNA certification, it changes the whole ballgame for us.”

In other items on the July 17 agenda, the board:

IN a related matter, Commissioner Jack Russek said he would remain the county board representative on the regional crime lab advisory board. When the matter was voted down in June, a frustrated Russek announced his immediate resignation as the board’s representative. When the matter was put on a board agenda earlier this month, no action was taken because Russek was recovering from hip surgery and wasn’t at the meeting.

SET the budget committee of the whole schedule. It is as follows: Tuesday, Aug. 7: Presentation of the draft 2013 budget (10:30 a.m.); Information Technology (11 a.m.); Sheriff/Corrections (11:30 a.m.). Thursday, Aug. 9: Assessor (9 a.m.); Court Administration (9:15 a.m.); Auditor-Treasurer/Elections (9:30 a.m.); Planning & Zoning (9:45 a.m.); Recorder (10:30 a.m.); Attorney (10:45 a.m.); Court Services (11 a.m.); Human Services (11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.). Monday, Aug. 13: Parks (9:30 a.m.); Extension (10:30 a.m.); Veterans Service/Civil Defense (11 a.m.); Surveyor (11:30 a.m.). Thursday, Aug. 16: Economic Development Partnership (9 a.m.); Soil and Water Conservation District (9:15 a.m.); Fair Board (9:45 a.m.); Historical Society (10:30 a.m.); Initiative Foundation (10:45 a.m.); Non-Departmental (11 a.m.); County Board/Building Care and Maintenance/Administration (11:15 a.m.); Road and Bridge (1:30 p.m.). Time was also allocated, if needed, for a second hearing on human services following the Aug. 21 board meeting and road and bridge following the Aug. 28 board meeting. The final draft budget and levy will be reviewed after the Sept. 4 board meeting.

AUTHORIZED the administration department to solicit quotes from insurance companies for employee life insurance and short-term and long-term disability coverage. Every five years, by state statute, counties must put out competitive bids for insurance plans. The plan year begins March 1, 2013. The deadline to receive quotes is Aug. 28 and the recommendations will be presented to the county board at its Sept. 18 meeting.

APPROVED signatures on union labor agreements with the assistant county attorney’s association and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local No. 49.

SET a bid opening for a trail and sidewalk project in the City of Montrose as part of the Safe Routes to School program for 9:30 a.m. at the Aug. 14 county board meeting.

APPROVED a request from the City of Buffalo to use the west county courthouse parking lot Saturday, Sept. 8, for a display area for a classic car show in town that weekend.