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Motorists’ diversion programs defended by Kandiyohi County sheriff

WILLMAR –– Kandiyohi County Sheriff Dan Hartog asked legislators Tuesday to do what they can to preserve driver diversion programs that the state auditor claims are illegal.

Hartog said Kandiyohi County's “Driver Awareness Diversion” class provides valuable education to people who commit minor traffic violations and the revenue that’s generated is used to fund valuable programs, including “Project Lifesaver.”

A state auditor’s report said the programs are illegal.

Hartog defended the local program during the Kandiyohi County Board meeting, where Sen. Lyle Koenen and Rep. Mary Sawatzky were in attendance to discuss legislative issues.

Hartog said the driver diversion program was started in Kandiyohi County in 2005 under the jurisdiction of the county attorney, whom he said has authority to initiate diversion programs for a variety of crimes.

The program gives people who are stopped for violations, like an improper lane change or minor speeding, to pay a $75 fee and attend a two-hour educational class rather than pay a $150 fine.

The violations don’t go on a person’s driving record if they participate in the class, but Hartog said people are limited to participating in the Kandiyohi County program only once a year and only twice in a lifetime.

It’s a volunteer program that many people choose, he said.

The class includes a worksheet on traffic laws, testimonials from people who have been in accidents and face-to-face time with local deputies. It consistently gets good reviews from participants.

“We put a lot of thought into our program,” Hartog said. “I’m passionate about it.”

The auditor’s report said cities and counties don’t have the authority to set their own driving laws.

Hartog said, however, the issue is about money.

When someone pays a $150 traffic fine, the state gets $75.

The diversion program eliminates the state cut.

Since the program started here a decade ago, Hartog said Kandiyohi County has received more than $500,000 in fees.

That money has been used to purchase law enforcement equipment and to fund the county’s “Project Lifesaver” program that provides transmitter bracelets to adults with Alzheimer’s or children with autism to help track them if they wander away.

“Please don’t let the state grab that money from the county,” said County Board Chairman Jim Butterfield.

If the state eliminates the driver diversion program, Butterfield said he’s concerned other crime diversion programs will also be at risk.

“I hope the Legislature can get this figured out,” said Hartog.

Koenen said he thinks the program should be preserved.

The commissioners discussed numerous legislative concerns with the lawmakers including:

*The need for additional funding for transportation to not only maintain existing roads but to improve highways, especially closing the four-lane gap on state Highway 23 between Willmar and St. Cloud.

*Expanding the state sales tax exemption for local units of government.

*Eliminating the need for all county assessors to be certified, which commissioners said will make it difficult for rural counties to find an adequate number of qualified employees.

The legislators also said the bonding bill will be a priority for the session, which starts Feb. 25, as well as undoing several tax bills, including labor for farm equipment repairs, the warehouse sales tax and business-to-business tax.

Some of those changes will depend on the outcome of the next economic forecast, said Koenen.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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