The Ramsey County Commission met Tuesday evening, and once again the budget for the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center took center stage as commissioners considered ideas to fund the facility.

The Ramsey County Commission met Tuesday evening, and once again the budget for the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center took center stage as commissioners considered ideas to fund the facility.

Though the LEC serves five counties, the commissioners expressed frustration that Ramsey County takes on the brunt of the funding. Another issue the commission brought up is the fact that while many of the inmates at the LEC are arrested within city limits, the city doesn’t help fund the facility.

A recent plan for each of the counties that the LEC serves - Benson, Nelson, Towner, and Eddy, along with Ramsey County - to contribute half a mil to fund LEC operations was quashed when Towner County commissioners balked at the idea.

LEC director Rob Johnson said that Towner County officials would rather see the LEC charge more to house inmates than contribute any further tax dollars, and when they wouldn’t budge, Nelson County followed suit, which derailed the plan.

Johnson said that, if successful, the plan would have raised  $73,000 from the five counties.

Johnson also detailed many of the issues with the building, which he said is badly in need of upgrades.

Because the idea to raise half a mil from the five counties is dead in the water, Johnson indicated that staff downsizing may be in the future.

"The majority of our expenses are in our staffing," Johnson said.

Another idea that was floated was to possibly downsize, as inmate counts are currently far short of capacity. According to commissioner Bill Mertens, a full jail would equal $1.6M annually.

Commission chair Myrna Heisler took a blunt approach when talking about the LEC funding issue while defending county taxpayers.

“It’s a money pit,” Heisler said. "I don't know if we're being fair to the taxpayers of Ramsey County. The representation is not fair. It's not what it should be."

No immediate plans to reduce staff or downsize are apparently in the works, and the commission worked to find solutions to the LEC problem, which is exacerbated by the fact that state revenue is down.

State’s attorney Lonnie Olson said that because of state funding issues, many of those found guilty of crimes that would normally land them in the state Department of Corrections are likely to be housed in county facilities, passing the cost of incarceration down from state to local governments.

Mertens agreed with Olson’s assessment of the statewide problem.

"Judges are being a little more lenient because of the incarceration costs," Mertens said.

Though more problems were discussed than solutions were offered, one idea was to change bylaws that determine LEC funding in order to compel other counties to pitch in more for LEC operations.

Olson said that the bylaws are outdated, and Commissioner Ed Brown said that there should be a specific fund to handle facility improvements.
"There's no fund set up for the maintenance of the building," Brown said.

Because of the lack of cooperation from some counties involved in LEC operations and the drop in state revenue, it appears that facility funding will continue to be a problem in the foreseeable future.

"Devils Lake has large city problem on a small town budget,” Olson said.