WATFORD CITY Western North Dakota law enforcement agencies are feeling the pain of dealing with growing populations, increased crime, and overcrowded jails while working on rather standard budgets. They'll be given a bit of help from the state come September to the tune of $16.6 million in emergency funds for law enforcement divided into two separate programs for the biennium.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was on hand in the McKenzie County Courthouse to take questions and suggestions on the use of that money from Sheriffs, Chiefs of Police, and other law enforcement officers Tuesday afternoon.
The two programs are separated into a fund of $9.6 million for law enforcement in the oil patch in general, and $7 million specifically for Sheriff's of oil and gas producing counties only. A one-time appropriation of $750,000 will be taken from the $9.6 million fund to provide access to a service called Lexipol to all law enforcement agencies for one year. After that, the agencies will have to decide if the service is of value to them and then fund future use by themselves.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, left, speaks with western North Dakota law enforcement leaders Tuesday about emergency funding available to them to help with the region’s oil impact and growing crime rates.
According to Lexipol's website (www.lexipol.com/), the service is "America's leading provider of risk management policies and resources for public safety organizations" that "offers state-specific policy manuals that are integrated with scenario-based daily training on high-risk, low-frequency events."
The other funding is also a one-time appropriation distributed by The Board of University and School Lands, casually called "The Land Board," and is a competitive grant-based program where agencies will have to apply for money based on their specific needs.
"If there are emergency needs that need to be met and they need to be met right now, and I'm thinking specifically of things that put cops out on the street (like) equipment needs, vehicle needs, if there is something that is really an emergency that will help us get cops out on the roads and on the streets right now, we'll do that immediately," said Stenehjem.
The deadline for applying for those absolute emergency needs is July 12. Other applications for larger projects will be due by July 26.
The Land Board was chosen to allocate the funds because it's already made up of elected officials experienced with the process through funding programs with Burn Grants in the past, according to Stenehjem.
Although some comments were made and questions asked by police when Stenehjem opened the floor, most officers took his suggestion to conference with each other to discuss regional needs so as to better coordinate funds across the board. Many made themselves available to be interviewed by The Minot Daily News on what they feel are their priorities.
Their concerns were largely along the same lines Stenehjem spoke of during his introduction. Most had concerns for vehicle and equipment needs, but housing assistance seemed to top the list.
"Number one has got to be housing," said Chief Arthur D. Walgren of the New Town Police Department. "I have the budget for two additional officers but I have nowhere to put them. And there's no housing available even if we had rental assistance, there's just nothing there."
"Right now rent is being charged locally for oil-field wages and that's not what my guys are making," said recently installed Dunn County Sheriff Clayton Cooker. "So, they're having trouble finding places and when they do find places it's taking more than 50 percent of their wages just to pay rent."
"Our biggest problem is probably housing for the officers," said Mike Murphy, the administrator of the brand new Police Department in the town of Stenehjem's roots, Arnegard.
"We did apply for an oil impact grant and we got enough money to get one vehicle and get the equipment in there. But the way things are expanding with the population, we're anticipating on really growing."
He added that, as a new department, they don't have any statistics yet.
"We are going by what you can see happening and we're trying to plan for it, which is kind of hard because we don't have the dotting the i's and crossing the t's that the state wants," he said. "But when we do, it's going to be a lot."
He'll have to start dotting i's and crossing t's soon, though, because Stenehjem mentioned that agencies that don't file their crime statistics with his office on time may not be eligible for this assistance. In the past, he said, for very small counties or police departments filing on time wasn't that big of a deal because they'd only have a few arrests, but now that things are growing, there is a real need for their data to be filed, too.
Chief Jesse Wellen of the Watford City Police department listed vehicles and equipment as a more pressing need than housing because the city itself currently has employee housing underway.
"We have to address the needs of the community, too, because the calls and service are going up," said Sheriff Clarence Tuhy of Stark County. "The public is demanding more for their tax dollars, and it's understandable, but yet we need the personnel to do it. And I know in Stark County we're dealing with courthouse security, which the Sheriff's Office has to provide ... so I've got one person in each of the courtrooms and nobody on the road, and that's not acceptable, as far as I'm concerned."
Other departments, like the McKenzie County Sheriff's Department and the Minot Police Department, were largely unsure what exactly their most pressing needs are but are in discussions with other regional agencies. There was a general feeling at the meeting that the agencies were looking forward to figuring needs out together.
"We'd like to see some regional training coming in and have that coordinated so that we can take care of some of the other counties around here, too," said Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching. "The counties and cities in the area have borne the brunt of this on their own backs. This is the first time the state's ever come up to the plate, so we had to take care of a lot of this stuff before the state kicked in. Not that we don't appreciate it, because we do, and it's a sizable amount of money, but it's still a drop in the bucket of what the oil and gas producing counties are sending to Bismarck."
Busching and Sheriff Steve Kukowski of Ward County both preside over the largest counties in the region, and their jails are stretched thin.
"We've been in this jail for three and a half years and we're looking at expanding, doubling it's size," Busching said. He added that his jail count on Tuesday morning was 114 people, which is over the jail's maximum number of 112, "but that's using up all of my isolation cells, all of my clinical cells, everything."
Kukowski said that the county jail is his biggest priority "by far."
"The architect is bringing back the plans and when he does and we start digging it's too late, because the plans are in place and we're going to build on that," he said. "So, that's what I'm fighting for now, that we can make these changes before we commence construction."
"We would add extra cell space with that money and then we would contract with the Feds," Kukowski said of his ideal use of funding. "Now they're driving to Rugby and to Devils Lake for inmates, they could house them right in Minot and we could assess them a fee to house them every day so, in turn, we could pay for that space again by contracting with the Feds."
"I'm just glad that someone's finally trying to help out the oil impact area around here. Just about everything is broken in these communities," said Murphy, in summary of his feelings on the funds. "The water lines, the sewer lines, the school systems, everything is in trouble and finally we're getting enough help here that, instead of getting Band-Aids, we're trying to get things fixed."