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Cass Lake City Council to vote on elimination of police department

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CASS LAKE - At a Monday night meeting at Pike Bay Town Hall, a group of Cass Lake area residents gathered to air concerns about plans to disband the Cass Lake Police Department.

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The Cass Lake City Council will act on the issue at a 5:30 p.m. meeting today at City Hall. But Cass Lake Mayor Wayne LaDuke said Tuesday disbanding the police department and contracting for law enforcement with the Cass County Sheriff's Office is "basically a done deal."

LaDuke said a shrinking tax base requires a different way of doing business. Otherwise, property taxes will rise by double digits for the next 10 or 15 years, he said.

Cutting local police and contracting with the county will allow the city to focus on other critical needs, including street and infrastructure repairs, he said. He cited $4 million in infrastructure improvements the city needs.

The police department budget increased by $100,000 this year, for a total of $403,000, LaDuke said. The department consists of two officers and Chief Larry Johnson.

"If we go with the county, we would save $113,000," LaDuke said.

"Cost is a very large word," said Rene Wright, a former member of the City Council. "There's a dollar cost and cost to the community."

She recalled Cass Lake's high crime rate a decade ago that made the city so dangerous her daughter couldn't play outside. Now, she said, Cass Lake is a much safer place.

"To lose our police department loses our ability to control our policing," Wright said. "There are so many questions to be answered. That's why I think we should have public meetings."

LaDuke said a public meeting was held in June at Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School to discuss the plan to disband the police department. He said about 25 people attended it. However, he added that there is a limited amount of time to make the decision to contract with Cass County so the sheriff's office can hire the additional deputies to cover Cass Lake. Consequently, the City Council must make the decision now. He said Tuesday he would decide before tonight's meeting whether to take questions and comments from those in attendance at the City Council meeting.

According to the negotiations with the county, LaDuke said three deputies and a sergeant would be assigned to Cass Lake, which would also have access to three or four additional deputies as needed.

"It's not going to be random patrols that come into the city and they're gone," LaDuke said.

Some of those who object to disbanding the police department said they dislike what they see as the mayor's highhanded operation without consulting people about their wishes.

"We should have been informed as we go," Wright said.

Others said LaDuke personally dislikes Johnson, an allegation the mayor said is not true.

He said all city employees have agreed to the elimination of the city police department, and the two affected unions have approved.

He said 60 small cities in Minnesota have cut their police departments to contract with their county sheriff's office for law enforcement, and those he contacted are happy with the arrangement.

"It's not the sign of a dying community," LaDuke said. "Cass Lake is not dying, at least not on my watch."

He noted the streetscape renovation project on Main Street, four new businesses that moved in last year and three or four housing starts, the first since 1987.

LaDuke, a 1957 Cass Lake High School graduate, said he moved back to his hometown of Cass Lake four years ago when he retired after 35 years in the U.S. Postal Service, mostly in Minneapolis. He ran for and won the mayor's seat two years ago.

"This community is important to me," he said. "I don't take a salary for doing this. ... I have contributed to the city from my own pocket."

He said he expects a large crowd at the Cass Lake City Council meeting tonight, as does Wright.

"Bring your own chairs," she advised.

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