It’s time for a discussion in Tower and Soudan about the future of law enforcement in the communities. Operating a local police department is expensive— really expensive— and residents should understand how much they pay, or how many other services they give up, in order to maintain it.
Given rumblings that change is afoot in the Breitung Police Department, and that Tower’s current contract with Breitung expires next year, now is a good time to begin the discussion. It’s too easy for communities to operate on autopilot, simply continuing decisions and policies just because they’ve always been done that way. Breitung has maintained its own police department for decades and remains one of the only townships in the county to do so. If local law enforcement is so valuable, why don’t other townships follow suit? Other area townships, like Greenwood and Morse, with much larger populations and more valuation than Breitung, seem to do just fine relying on the excellent service provided by the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office— a service that costs their residents nothing beyond their usual county levy. Fayal Township, with a population of more than 1,800, contracts with the city of Eveleth for police coverage, at a cost of $40,000 a year. That’s one third the cost of the city of Tower’s contract with Breitung, to patrol a much larger area with more than three times the population of Tower.
That police contract is a substantial burden for Tower, consuming fully one-third of its property tax levy. For a large commercial business in Tower, that adds up, as much as $2,500 a year just for the Breitung police. A typical resident of Mill Point pays $1,500 a year for the service. That’s real money and it’s one reason that city officials in Tower hear regular complaints about property taxes.
We recognize that, for some, local police provide a source of emotional comfort, an expectation that they’ll see a faster response if the need arises. But is that really the case? And do the relatively few actual emergency responses that do occur justify the expense? Would outcomes be substantially different if we relied on county deputies to respond? These are questions that officials in both Tower and Breitung should seek to answer. Policy-making should be based on solid data, not feelings, guesses, or simply reliance on the status quo.
These questions have been raised before, of course. The city of Tower did discontinue its contract with Breitung Township more than a decade ago, in favor of contracting with St. Louis County. Unfortunately, that didn’t save much money and folks in town didn’t feel like it was any improvement. Eventually, the city went back to contracting with Breitung.
Would the city of Tower become a lawless hellhole if it discontinued any police contract?
It’s unlikely. Other small cities, like Cook, Orr, and Littlefork, for example, rely on the county sheriff’s office for protection without any major impact to public safety. Both Tower and Breitung, for the past two years, have discontinued on-call service from the Breitung police in the winter months, to save money, without any noticeable effect. During those periods when no one is on-duty, residents of the two communities already rely on the sheriff’s office.
Folks in Tower and Breitung should recognize that the tax dollars they spend for local law enforcement are dollars that can’t be spent for other services, or for significant tax reductions. If the city could slash its tax levy by 25 percent, residents and business owners would feel that in their wallets, and the city would still have dollars left over for other purposes, such as street improvements, enhancing youth recreation, staffing a public library, paying a blight officer, or any of a multitude of other services.
This newspaper is not taking a position one way or another on any of these questions. But we do believe an open and fact-based discussion is warranted. When it comes to police coverage, the public should understand both the costs and the tradeoffs involved. That’s how we all can make decisions that best achieve the public’s interest.