Cities scramble to spend $210 million windfall on public safety projects

Later this year Minnesota cities will receive their share of a supposedly one-time $210 million allotment authorized by state lawmakers to bolster public safety in their communities. But it’s an open question as to how much of the windfall of taxpayer funding will actually pay for hiring and retaining more police, firefighters and first responders on the front line.

The authorizing language in the law provides categories of eligible spending, but the list is not exhaustive. It is also important to note that while legislators expected most of these funds to be used for police and fire expenses, it was intentionally written in a broad way that would allow for other uses as well.

As the League of Minnesota Cities points out, the legislation provided considerable latitude in what will be considered eligible for funding. For example:

Community violence prevention.

Community intervention programs.

Community engagement.

Mental health crisis responses.

Victim services.

It’s too soon to know how far some cities may have pushed the envelope on projects deemed suitable for public safety funding. But the Post Bulletin indicates the debate has broken out in the Rochester City Council over how to spend its $5.3 million, starting with an expensive study in search of a problem.

A proposal to spend $200,000 on studying police and fire department responses faces split views on the Rochester City Council.

“I have not heard complaints about the police department or the fire department,” council member Shaun Palmer said Monday, suggesting those funds could be used elsewhere.

“I have had complaints that we can’t keep restrooms open in the parks,” he said, indicating a desire to see community service officers assigned to patrol the city’s parks.

Instead of using the $200,000 to actually hire police or fire personnel, supporters want to spend it on a study to guide them on public safety staffing.

Council President Brooke Carlson said she believes the review of current practices could help ensure the city makes thoughtful choices when staffing the police department amid hiring challenges.

“I think it’s a really smart idea,” she said. “It’s not any criticism of our police department.”

Some city officials also strongly supported the study, emphasizing it would be undertaken by a qualified consultant. Yet no one could seemingly articulate a specific problem that would justify spending $200,000 of taxpayer public safety funding.

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton cited some concerns about the proposal and said the police department is already looking at ways it could evaluate and improve its operations.

She said good information could be gleaned by an overall review, but the council needs to identify concerns before any study starts.

A $200,000 study in search of a problem is just one of the proposals under consideration for Rochester’s more than $5 million in new public safety funding. The clock’s ticking as cities across the state also scramble to allocate their windfall in next year’s budgets taking shape.

Cities will have to consult with their attorneys and use their best judgment to determine whether a use that is not clearly defined as eligible or ineligible is allowable. However, any use must be to provide public safety. And like with any state funds, their use must be closely tracked and documented in order to respond to any future inquiries or evaluations of this program.