Minnesota lawmakers earlier this month finished up a historic legislative session that saw the DFL majority pass many of its start-of-session goals and leftover priorities that stalled in last year’s divided Legislature.
One of those proposals was $300 million in one-time public safety funding for local, county and tribal governments, an idea promoted by Gov. Tim Walz last year that failed to pass a politically divided Legislature. But the proposal went through this year as part of the larger tax bill passed last month.
The money does include a few limitations on how it can be spent — and due to its one-time nature, isn’t likely to be useful in paying ongoing expenses like salaries — but local governments have a lot of discretion in how to use the funding to meet their public safety needs.
Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights and the author of the public safety funding provision, said a lack of funding for public safety statewide coincides with increasing need.
The provision that passed is different from an earlier proposal by the governor to direct money only to cities that employ a peace officer. This newer provision did away with that, giving more local governments wider discretion to decide what public safety means for them.
“It was important to make sure that because it’s going to the cities and that they have a decision to make, that they can decide something that keeps all of their residents in mind,” she said. “If that means hiring police officers then that’s what they could do with it, but if it means buying a fire truck that’s what they can do with it also.”
The amount given to each local government is based on its population, with Minneapolis receiving just over $19 million, for example. Local governments may not use the money to purchase of armored vehicles, chemical weapons or tear gas, or spend it on legal fees for officers accused of misconduct.
The discretion outlined by the bill allows agencies to do a wide variety of things to further local public safety efforts.
Gustafson said city officials at White Bear Lake are considering using their money to buy a new ambulance they think is desperately needed. Others are considering recruitment bonuses for officers, while smaller cities like Vadnais Heights that contract with their local county sheriff for police services could use their portion of the funding to help pay off those contracts.
“It’s a wide variety just within my Senate district,” she said. “We know that public safety can mean lots of different things, but it is something that communities are struggling with and not having those funds was a burden on them.”
Scott Williams, the deputy county manager for Ramsey County, said in a statement that the more than $6 million allotted to the county will help meet various public safety needs during their 2024-25 budget cycle.
“Remaining competitive with employee recruitment and retention, reducing the criminal case backlog caused by restrictions during the pandemic as well as continued focus on important justice system transformation work” will be among the priorities paid for by the state funding, he said.
One-time vs. ongoing
Some opponents of the funding have pointed to the one-time nature of it as unhelpful. Many police departments across the state have been dealing with staffing issues in recent years, and they argue that one-time funding doesn’t help departments pay salaries into the future if they hire more officers.
Moorhead’s Police Department has been down six officers, or nearly 10% of its authorized force, for quite some time, said DFL Sen. Rob Kupec, who represents the city. Cities like Moorhead, and more so for even smaller nearby cities and towns, have struggled to retain officers who leave for a suburban department near the Twin Cities.
“We cannot keep up with some of the suburban departments around the Twin Cities,” he said. “We will get new officers, we train them, they come here a couple of years and then they leave for call volumes that are probably, at least in the case of Moorhead, easier with higher pay and better benefits to some of the ring suburbs in the Twin Cities.”
While the one-time state funding isn’t a solution for ongoing expenses like wages, these smaller departments could use the funds on retention or hiring bonuses to prevent officers from leaving for larger departments in the metro area.
Bodyworn cameras are also an option for smaller departments that may not have them yet. Republicans and Democrats have pushed for grant money to help those departments buy the equipment — particularly in Greater Minnesota, where fewer departments have them.
But last year, House Democrats said the money should be tied to new requirements for releasing footage of when an officer kills someone. Republicans balked at the idea.This year, DFL lawmakers passed those regulations for releasing video. And they dropped a proposal from Senate Democrats for a body camera grant program, which drew frustrations from the GOP. But DFLers contend the public safety aid can take the place of that initiative.
Kupec said the funding also opens the door for more Greater Minnesota departments to participate in programs like Pathways to Policing, which helps departments recruit more officers from underserved communities by paying for schooling and training.
“That’s a program that maybe they would want to use some of that money for, particularly bringing in officers from communities that maybe don’t normally have police officers come from them,” he said. “That’s been a good program so that’s one of the things they can use the funding for there.”