Wright County concerned about crime lab funding disparity

By John Holler

Contributing Writer

For more than five years, Wright County has been a member of a three-county forensics laboratory in Anoka County. During that time, the county has felt like it is paying more than its fair share for the lab, but, as the Jan. 14 board meeting, the commissioners made it clear that unless the funding mechanism changes, Wright County may pull out of the collaborative laboratory.

In what Commissioner Charlie Borrell termed “firing a shot across the bow,” the board discussed the funding disparity. The topic came up as part of an agenda item brought forward by the sheriff’s department to change the language of the Joint Powers Agreement to double the size of voting members on the forensics lab committee. Currently, the only voting members are the sheriffs of Anoka, Sherburne and Wright counties. The amendment would add a commissioner from each county to the voting membership. But, the topic brought up a longstanding issue that hasn’t been resolved during the period in which the crime lab has operated – Wright County paying more than its fair share

When the matter was raised 18 months ago, Commissioner Pat Sawatzke contended that the fees for service should be equal to the usage of the crime lab. He looked at the numbers back then and believes they remain consistent – Wright County uses about 10 percent of the facility’s time on processing evidence, but pays 25 percent of the operations cost because the funding formula is based on population, not usage.

“I think we have funding problem based on equity,” Sawatzke said. “If we’re only using 10 percent of the service, but we’re funding 25 percent of the program. We’re helping Anoka County fund this program and there is an inequity that has lasted for some time.”

Sawatzke made it clear he has no problem with the performance of the crime lab, which is expected to get approval to have DNA findings used in court cases, but said that the vast majority of counties in the state use the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is free. He also contends that the decision to make the funding formula based on population was made privately by the three county sheriffs, not the respective county boards.

“The original document when the organization first met, before the first brick was laid, the three sheriffs had already decided on the funding formula,” Sawatzke said. “The feeling was to let it ride at that time. In the original document, the language was different concerning the funding formula. The language was changed to include population as the funding formula. Joint Powers Agreements are typically based on usage. This doesn’t follow that.”

Borrell makes a motion to approve the JPA, but to include that the county may exercise its 180-day “out clause” if the funding policy isn’t changed. The board approved the change by a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Mark Daleiden voting against the change due to questions about the county moving forward under the current policy.

In other items on the Jan. 14 agenda, the board:

PRESENTED the board with an updated Continuation Of Operations Plan. The first COOP plan was created in 2010, but this was the first time it updated the functions of the plan, which deal with the loss unexpected loss of staff or buildings. In first COOP plan, there was no section that included the role of the county board. The next phase is to work with the Information Technology Department as to how the county would deal with technology issues if a building was severely damaged and employees were displaced.

RECEIVED an update on County Ditch 10. Work on cleanup of the ditch is going well, but those doing the work have two questions. First, the contractor wants direction as to when the county wants herbicides to be sprayed in the area. Second, there is an additional 100 feet outside of the original scope of the project that needs to be cleaned out.

NAMED David Thompson and Jerry Pettit to the planning commission. Pettit, who was selected by Borrell for District 5, was named to a three-year term. Thompson, who was selected by Daleiden for District 3, will finish out the final year of the term, Ralph Douglas was named to in 2012. Douglas has been in poor health and opted out of the final year of his term.

APPROVED getting an appraisal for a potential purchase of land adjacent to Ney Park near Maple Lake. The county had looked to partner with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources or the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, but the parks commission wasn’t comfortable with the funding sources or restrictions. The county is looking to partner with Pheasants Forever, which has indicated it would pay the local share of the cost if the purchase receives grant funding through lottery proceeds. Borrell voted against proceeding, asking, “At some point, do we say we have enough park land?” The county currently has more than 11,000 acres of recreational space and more than 5,000 acres of wildlife management land.

APPROVED a not-to-exceed amount of $500 to partner with the Cedar Lake Conservation Association for watercraft inspections in Schroeder Park. The CLCA would match the funds, is it did last year. Parks Administrator Marc Mattice said the program was beneficial to the county and was viewed as a good educational tool for teaching boaters to inspect their boats before and after hitting the water in search of potential invasive species that can take hold in a lake when attached to boats.

REFERRED to the ways and means committee a proposed 100-acre land sale that was brought to the parks commission, but Mattice didn’t feel it was something that was a parks question. The land has gravel reserves that might be an investment opportunity for the county, but doesn’t have much value in terms of park property.

REFERRED discussion of the 2014 board meeting schedule to Jan. 21 meeting.

APPROVED a six-month trial period of dedicating a portion of weekly board agendas for commissioners to discuss committee/advisory board meetings they have attended to increase the communication about the actions that occur at those meetings that aren’t already part of the committee minutes that a routinely part of board agendas.

AUTHORIZED board attendance at a River Rider program meeting that was scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15 at the St. Michael City Hall.