by CHRIS ROGERS
While the idea is just in its infancy and the details have yet to be laid out, Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi’s proposal for supplementing police officers with social workers is already generating a lot of interest, including debate at League of Women Voters forums for both City Council and Winona County Board candidates.
The gist of the idea is that city social workers would be on-call to help police officers respond to certain situations. “We have repeat calls for things such as homelessness. We have repeat calls for things such as welfare checks,” Sarvi said, referring for requests for police to check on an individual’s well-being. “We get calls for family-type issues. Again, it’s going to really depend on what [the social workers’] exact relationship to the police department is going to be,” Sarvi said, noting that there are various models for how such a program could work. “Most instances they’re not a go-to for the call. They’re what would be called the second responders.” The thought is that social workers could help connect people to resources — such as mental health care or homeless shelters — to address the underlying reasons for the calls.
In a similar vein, the state-funded Southeast Minnesota Crisis Response program made mental health professionals a new kind of emergency responders. It was promising, but the response times — up to an hour — were very slow because some crisis responders were driving across Southeast Minnesota to answer late-night calls, according to former Winona Police Department (WPD) Chief Paul Bostrack and Winona County Health and Human Services Director Karen Sanness. That often left officers to handle the situations on their own, Bostrack stated.
In late August, the City Council voted 4-3 to raise the tentative 2021 property tax levy by $300,000 to potentially fund three social worker positions and equipment. Last month, the council reduced that to $200,000 and two social workers in a 5-2 vote. Because state law dictates that next year’s property taxes may be lowered after September but not raised, the council was in a position where, if they wanted the program next year, they had to raise the preliminary tax levy now, then figure out the details later.
Over the next several weeks, Sarvi and a committee of local officials are trying to do just that: Draft a detailed proposal for the City Council to consider including it in the final 2021 budget in December. Alternatively, the council could shelve the proposal and cancel the $200,000 tax hike.
City Council members who voted against the proposal said there are too many details to figure out in such a short time. “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,” WPD Chief Tom Williams said. Supporters argued the idea is important enough to consider implementing as soon as possible. “I think there is a real pressing need to have these resources available to our law enforcement,” City Council member Eileen Moeller said.
At candidate forums late last month, Winona County Board member Greg Olson and City Council candidate Chris Meier both seemed to suggest that the city take advantage of the county’s existing social workers before hiring its own.
“We have 22 social workers that are 300 feet away from the Winona Police Department,” Olson said of the county. “I think by working together and collaboratively, we can save all of the taxpayers some money and provide better services to our citizens,” he added.
“Right now, if you look at Winona County, they have approximately 22 social workers on staff,” Meier said. “And we’re going to implement two new social [worker] positions at a tax increase to the people of the city of Winona? My thought is, why aren’t we doing cost sharing?”
Winona County has 34 social workers, according to Sanness, but they already have full workloads handling child protection cases, overseeing services for disabled citizens, licensing foster care and daycare facilities, working with juvenile delinquents, and managing mental health services for residents with serious illness.
Sanness said that the idea of supplementing police with social workers is a promising one, and the city and the county may be able to work together, but her current staff doesn’t have time to be on-call overnight. “Social workers really are trained to do that job and can probably do a better job of de-escalating some of that,” she stated. “Other counties have social workers on staff who go out with law enforcement,” Sanness continued. “We don’t have the capacity to take that on right now. Everyone we have at the county has full-time jobs already, and I don’t want to work social workers around the clock either.”
At the same League of Women Voters forum, City Council candidate Will Gibson raised another issue: “Hiring a social worker is not going to get rid of problems. Mental health access is something I believe in strongly. Winona has closed their mental health unit at Winona Health. We have a lot of nonprofits working very hard: Volunteer Services, Habitat, our churches. But the underlying issues in Winona involving depression, other mental health things, substance abuses — they’re not going to go away because we throw $200,000, $300,000 at it. We need to address and care for the people of Winona in new ways.”
On mental health, Gibson’s point echoes one that Winona County Sheriff’s Office leaders have been making for years: The erosion of mental health care programs have made law enforcement the “first resort” for dealing with mental health crises.
Once city social workers show up on a scene, are there enough resources for them to refer citizens to? “I believe there are,” Sarvi responded. “And where we’re short, I’m sure we’ll kick this up the flag pole, and I believe we’ll have people in this community who will rise to the occasion and help provide these services where they’re needed.”
Sarvi said a committee will meet over the next several weeks to develop the social workers proposal. Its first meeting — scheduled for October 13 — will not be open to the public or the press. Sarvi said he and the committee would consider opening future meetings to the press. “The first meeting we really need to sit down and have open, honest discussion … I know people want concrete answers to what’s going on here, but we need to give this some time to play out. We need to give some breathing room in order to evaluate the options for delivering the service,” he stated.