by CHRIS ROGERS
Could city social workers take over or help with some of the Winona Police Department’s (WPD) calls? The idea is still in its infancy, but city leaders are seriously considering implementing such a program next year.
The proposal would not subtract any funding or staffing from the WPD, but add an estimated $300,000 to hire three social workers that could help the WPD respond to calls involving mental health crises, homelessness, and other social issues.
The main source of controversy has been how fast the city should move on the idea. In a year where communities across Minnesota and the U.S. have been reevaluating the role of police, some City Council members felt an urgency to pursue the program. Others said they could support it next year, but were not willing to raise taxes during a pandemic to fund an in-the-works concept without detailed plans.
The Winona City Council was slated to levy its second-lowest property tax hike in years — a 2.8-percent increase — in the 2021 budget. Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi pitched the social workers program as an optional add-on to his proposed budget. If the council wanted to, it could raise the tax levy another 3.2 percent — for a total hike of six percent — to fund the program. Admittedly, the program is just an idea at this point with many details to iron out, but if the city wants to fund it in 2021, it would have to raise the preliminary levy now to do so, Sarvi explained. State rules prohibit the City Council from raising next year’s property taxes after a September deadline. “If you want to add it, it needs to be added now. It can always be removed, but if you don’t, it’s virtually impossible [to add later],” Sarvi told the council.
In a 4-3 vote, the City Council opted to raise the tentative tax levy, give city staff the next three months to nail down the details of how the program would work, and then consider implementing it or cutting it when the budget comes up for a final vote in December. Mayor Mark Peterson and council members Pam Eyden, Eileen Moeller, and Paul Schollmeier supported the move. Council members Michelle Alexander, George Borzyskowski, and Al Thurley opposed it.
“I think there is a real pressing need to have these resources available to our law enforcement,” Moeller said.
In an interview WPD Chief Paul Bostrack — who is set to retire later this month — said his department gets calls where social workers could help. He pointed out that Crisis Response for Southeast Minnesota had tried to offer mental health professionals on-call 24/7 for helping with citizens in mental health crisis, but their response times were slow enough that WPD officers still needed to largely deal with the situations on their own.
“I really feel like given what’s going on in the world right now and what we might be up against next year, we need to seriously consider doing this,” Eyden said. “Right now, the police are left to deal with a lot of situations that really shouldn’t be part of their job,” she elaborated in an interview. Pointing to past cuts for mental health services locally and on a state and national level, she added, “A stitch in time saves nine, as your grandma told you. It’s true … Serving people better — yes, it’s expensive, but it may very well save money, save stress, save the community in really valuable ways.”
With the financial straits so many people are in this year, Alexander said she was unwilling to support new city staff positions of any kind in 2021. Why not wait until next year? she asked. Then city staff can take more time to plan the program and the council will have a better sense of the economic future, she reasoned.
“Rather than making a decision tonight, I’m not comfortable adding this to our budget as even a tentative position without more information,” Thurley said, echoing concerns Alexander raised about the lack of details.
This is a good idea, but $300,000 is a tough pill to swallow, Borzyskowski said. “I think it’s a very, very good addition to the police department in trying to curb some of the activity that is going on. Adding three people; I do not support that,” he stated. Pointing to small businesses in Eyden’s downtown ward, Borzyskowski added, “They’re not ready for that [tax] increase yet. I really feel that.”
Just because we’re raising the tentative levy to preserve this option doesn’t mean we have to include it in the final budget, Schollmeier noted. “I think we need to take a serious look, and by voting on this now we’re saying, ‘Let’s take a serious look. Let’s see what the options are, what the costs are to the community, and what a program might look like.’”
In an interview after the council’s vote, WPD Deputy Chief Tom Williams — who is slated to succeed Bostrack as police chief — said that, when it comes to how such a program would actually work, “There’s a lot to figure out.” He added, “Are we going to be able to get it done by November of this year? It’s a tall order, and we need to get it right.”