The city council in Tower has an important decision to make in the coming days over whether they wish to contract for coverage with the soon-to-be reconstituted Breitung Police Department.
Based on public sentiment, including survey results, officials in Breitung likely made the right decision— for them— in moving ahead with the hiring of a police chief. Yet, as most of us know, these twin towns don’t always view things in the same way and that certainly appears to be the case when it comes to local policing. When Breitung suspended its police department back in March, we had expected to hear more from residents in Tower on the subject. Instead, the change, for the most part, generated a collective shrug from the community. When the city council held two well-publicized public meetings to take citizen input on the subject, council members sat in nearly empty rooms. Out of the roughly 500 residents in town, only 23 bothered to return a survey asking for opinions on the question. And only three of those surveys indicated contracting with Breitung as their first choice. The most popular of the eight options offered on the survey was to simply rely on 911 service from the St. Louis County Sheriff.
Perhaps residents in Tower recognize the tradeoffs involved. Up until March, the police contract consumed about 30 percent of the city’s levy. That’s a huge expense for a service that, as the past several months have shown, city residents don’t care all that much about. If the city missed plowing the streets after the next big snowstorm, you can rest assured that city council members would catch heck for it right away.
They catch grief regularly for the condition of city streets, or for the city’s longstanding failure to enforce its blight ordinance. But the disappearance of the Breitung police? It’s been mostly just crickets.
The tradeoffs are very real. When the city spent approximately $115,000 on its police contract last year, that was money that couldn’t be used to improve city streets and alleys. It’s money that couldn’t be used as the local match on any number of grant-funded projects, or for economic development, or for any of a number of other services that small towns often provide for their residents. Perhaps, most significantly, it’s money that could otherwise support a sizable reduction in the city’s property tax levy, which is already among the highest around, given the size of its tax base. That could save some city residents $1,000 or more per year, on residential property alone.
What’s more, the city could just wait and see how it works out in Breitung. It appears that Breitung is moving ahead with the hiring of a police chief, regardless of what Tower decides to do. That means there’s no inconvenience for the township if the city holds off on a decision. As a city that’s still recovering from its financial crunch, the city could simply bank the savings it is presently experiencing from the discontinuance of its police contract to bolster its cash flow and begin to rebuild its reserves.
It’s not as if the city doesn’t have police coverage, no matter which way the council goes. Since the Breitung police department suspended operations last March, St. Louis County Sheriff’s deputies have been noticeably present in the community. The sheriff’s office is a well-run, professional organization that provides generally prompt response to emergency calls and maintains real investigative resources when crimes are committed. One could argue that Tower-Soudan would be better served having the sheriff’s office as the primary responding agency rather than a very small police department with marginal resources. And, since taxpayers are already paying for the sheriff’s office through their county levy, there need be no additional cost for that service.
Most residents of the Tower area, including Greenwood, Vermilion Lake, Kugler, and Eagles Nest townships, have long relied on the sheriff’s office for law enforcement. Greenwood alone has nearly twice the year-round population, ten times the summer population, twenty times the property value, and at least as many businesses as Tower, and relies, without issue, on the sheriff’s office for local law enforcement. If residents there didn’t feel they were well-served by the sheriff’s office, we suspect we would have heard about it by now.
It’s understandable if members of the city council don’t rely on the feelings of township residents to make their decision. They’ll likely rely, instead, on the input they received from residents of Tower, who’ve made it abundantly clear that a local police department is not a high priority.