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Minn. town left with 1 officer department after bulk of force resigns

The Moose Lake city council will soon vote to decide whether to dissolve the police department in favor of a county law enforcement contract

Bulk of northern Minnesota police force resigns

Moose Lake , 40 minutes southwest of Duluth , is the latest in a string of small Minnesota towns struggling to keep up with public safety demands amid increasing costs and a shortage of officers throughout the state.

Moose Lake Police Department via Facebook

By Jana Hollingsworth
Star Tribune

DULUTH, Minn. — Interim Police Chief Chad Pattison is a force of one overseeing law enforcement of the northeastern Minnesota city of Moose Lake.

Two officers resigned from the typically five-person force last month, and two others, including the chief, last summer. This week, its City Council could decide to stick with a Moose Lake force or sign a contract with Carlton County to have four of its deputies oversee it, a controversial choice in the city of 2,600.

“It’s small-town America,” Pattison said, “and people want to keep their police department. They love their law enforcement here.”

Moose Lake, 40 minutes southwest of Duluth, is the latest in a string of small Minnesota towns struggling to keep up with public safety demands amid increasing costs and a shortage of officers throughout the state.

The entire police force resigned in Goodhue, Minn., in August. Thirty-five municipal police departments throughout the state have dissolved since 2016, according to records kept by the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. About 400 remain.

With police under more scrutiny in the last decade, fewer people are joining the profession, said Jim Mortenson, executive director of Brooklyn Center-based Law Enforcement Labor Services. Nearly 260 agencies in Minnesota had jobs posted last week.

And rural cities paying less than urban centers play a big role in the problem, Mortenson said, noting pay for Moose Lake officers is near the bottom for cities statewide with populations between 2,000 and 5,000.

“You’ve got a lot of communities and counties that are throwing money at this to attract candidates,” he said, “and those that are working in these smaller communities are sliding over for more pay.”

Public safety would have made up a major portion of Moose Lake’s $2.8 million 2024 budget — about $900,000 for a five-person force, said Ellissa Owens, its city administrator.

Nearly 90% of property tax proceeds alone would have gone to the police department after a 28% cost increase this year due to police health insurance changes, she said, forcing a reliance on local government aid to pay for other city departments. The City Council chose to reduce the size of the force to be able to fund the department, opting against replacing two of the officers last fall.

It will now consider moving to a four-person Carlton County Sheriff’s team that will work out of Moose Lake, a cheaper option and one that covers more shifts.

“The city is not defunding law enforcement,” Owens said.

Like many rural towns, the Moose Lake department covers several surrounding townships and cities. Moose Lake has attempted to form a tax district to help pay for its law enforcement services, but has been unsuccessful several times.

The city is unusual in that it’s home to the prisoners of the Minnesota Correctional Facility and residents of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. Together, they make up about half of the city’s population. Between those facilities and others that are tax-exempt, only 30% of city land is taxable, Owens said, keeping property tax proceeds low and contributing to budget woes.

The presence of those facilities is one of the reasons Moose Lake needs its own force, said former officer Jason Syrett, who resigned in August and took a job with the local school district’s transportation department. He lacked confidence in city administration, he said.

Despite the city’s small size, its location next to Interstate 35 and the existence of the state facilities make Moose Lake a busy place. And he doesn’t believe money paid to Carlton County for deputies will benefit Moose Lake.

A contract with Carlton County will result in less coverage than a hometown police force offers, he said.

Pattison said he hopes to get the chance to rebuild the department in a city where community policing plays a big role.

“I can get out and get to know people and I am not just running from call to call,” he said. “That’s why I decided to stay.”

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