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Watkins disbands municipal police department

WATKINS -- The city of Watkins will disband its police department this year to combat an expected $30,000 reduction in Local Government Aid from the state government.

Meeker County Administrator Paul Virnig said Thursday that the city of Watkins has notified the county that it would dissemble its police department and contract with the Meeker County Sheriff's Office.

According to Watkins City Administrator Lynn Hokanson, the City Council approved the disbandment of its police department in preparation for looming cuts in Local Government Aid from the state. Hokanson said the city is expecting to lose up to $30,000 in aid in 2009 and believes cutting the police department, along with postponing any new large expenditures, could cover the revenue loss.

"It's a cost-saving measure," Hokanson said. "We're being cut in Local Government Aid ... and we hope to be able to save between $20,000 to $25,000 by contracting with the county. So it's being done as a budget-saving measure."

Hokanson said Watkins has financed a police department -- in a full-time or part-time capacity -- for at least the 46 years he has lived there. The department has one full-time employee and two part-time employees, he said.

Watkins will contract with Meeker County for one year starting March 1, Hokanson said. The city will evaluate the service every six months and decide after a year whether to keep a county deputy sheriff patrolling Watkins streets.

Watkins isn't the first city to in recent memory to disband its police department and contract with Meeker County. Virnig said Dassel disbanded its department about two years ago and Grove City did the same about four years ago.

"It's getting to be a habit around here, it looks like," Virnig said. " ... If these towns decide that's the best route to go, the county, I think, basically is there with open arms to help them out."

The county will most likely hire a new deputy sheriff to patrol Watkins, Virnig said, but the Sheriff's Department won't be stretched too thin with the new city. In the meantime, he said, Meeker County will assign its part-time deputy sheriffs to the area until the new deputy sheriff is hired.

According to the Minnesota Department of Revenue, Watkins was one of the few cities in Minnesota that did not lose state funding to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's "unallotment" of Local Government Aid in December. On the flip side, Hokanson said the city could lose an additional $30,000 of state funding in 2010 based on the projections of Pawlenty.

"We'll cross one bridge at a time here," Hokanson said.

" ... But until the (legislative) session is over, we're really not sure exactly how big of a cut we're going to take. So, like I said, we're starting with not making any major purchases, for one thing, and now with the police department."