Sheriff Knudson explains impact of Public Safety referendum on Eastern St. Croix County
by Mike R. Bondarenko
St. Croix County Sheriff Scott Knudson believes passage of the Public Safety Referendum on April 4 will result in improved law enforcement and criminal justice services in eastern Saint Croix County, including the Glenwood City area.
In an exclusive interview with the Tribune Press Reporter, the Sheriff shared his views on the public safety impact that passage of the referendum would have on communities east of U.S. Highway 63, the unofficial divide between eastern and western Saint Croix County.
Sheriff Knudson explained his department presently has 30 patrol deputies who serve as first responders to all calls for law enforcement service, including misdemeanor and felony crimes, motor vehicle crashes and other traffic-related incidents, mental health assessments and committals, alarms, property damage, suspicious people and vehicles, disturbances and public nuisances, trespassing and animal-related complaints. Oftentimes, only four patrol deputies are on duty for the entire county.
“Under our current staffing level, we have only one deputy assigned to respond to calls east of Highway ‘T.’ That deputy handles everything in that zone. It’s very large area,” Sheriff Knudson said.
The Sheriff’s Office deploys patrol deputies throughout the county by patrol zones. The county is divided into three zones. Two deputies are assigned to the area west of Highway ‘T,’ one north of Highway “E” and the other south of Highway “E.” There is also a deputy who roams between all three zones. The deputy east of Highway “T” is responsible for entire east side of the county, which encompasses all or part of 12 townships and includes the communities of Cylon, Deer Park, Emerald, Forest, Hersey and Wilson. This deputy also responds to calls in Glenwood City and Woodville when their officers are not on duty.
The Sheriff’s Office responded to a record-breaking 4314 calls for service east of Highway 63 in 2022, including calls in and around Glenwood City. Statistics show steady annual increases in public safety workloads throughout the county commensurate with population growth. In all, the Sheriff’s Office handled 25,000 calls for service last year. Each call requires a deputy’s attention.
“Over the last few years, there’s been a big increase in what we call ‘call stacking,’ meaning deputies have to prioritize which calls they can respond to right away and which calls have to wait until we can respond. This happens all the time, especially in the afternoons and evenings or weekends when we are the busiest. It’s not a good situation because when people call us, they want us to respond,” the sheriff said.
Sheriff Knudson pointed out that while his department can request mutual aid response to county calls near their jurisdictions from the 24-hour police departments in Hudson, River Falls, New Richmond and Somerset in western St. Croix County, as well from communities along Interstate 94 that have their own police departments, Glenwood City and surrounding townships do not have 24-hour police departments, which results in reduced response times, particularly during peak call times.
“When there is an officer on duty in Glenwood City, we can ask for their assistance under mutual aid. And, when they need help, we can respond to help them. But, when our deputy is on other calls or a long way away, and the Glenwood City officer needs help, it has to come from Dunn County. That’s not a good situation, especially in an emergency,” he said. Additional patrol deputies would allow for more rapid response.
In addition to patrol and first response to calls for service, the Sheriff’s Office also provides emergency 9-1-1 communications, investigative and technical support, canine and tactical response throughout the entire county, including the Glenwood City area.
“We get involved in working on cases in Glenwood City, such as child abuse, drug investigations and others. Sometimes, we are asked to take over a case in the city because we have more resources. That’s not an issue for us, but we need the personnel to properly resolve these cases. Right now, we’re short staffed,” Sheriff Knudson said.
Passage of the referendum would improve coverage and faster response times in eastern Saint Croix County. It would provide eight additional patrol deputies and two criminal investigators countywide, which would allow for additional law enforcement deployment in rural areas. “We would be able to provide more attention to the eastern townships, do more proactive directed patrol and have more time to resolve calls properly because we will have the manpower we need to do so,” he said.
Saint Croix County has the lowest number of deputies per jurisdictional population and the highest number of calls for service per deputy when compared to neighboring counties. “The need is there. The numbers are there. Now, we need to solve the problem. Of course, the issue is cost,” Sheriff Knudson said.
Among the most startling statistics offered by Sheriff Knudson are recent dramatic increases in drug seizures and mental health case interventions.
During all of 2022, the Sheriff’s Office seized 144 grams of Fentanyl, a powerful, widely abused narcotic. In the first two and one-half months of 2023 alone, Fentanyl seizures were 210 grams. “Fentanyl abuse is a real problem” the Sheriff said.
In 2007, the Sheriff’s Office handled 400 mental health-related cases, such as wellness checks and emergency commitments. Last year, deputies responded to 700 mental health-related calls for service or a 70% increase. “We saw a big increase during COVID in 2020 and 2021. We have added one patrol deputy since then to handle all these calls,” Sheriff Knudson said.
The average emergency mental health commitment case handled by the Sheriff’s Office involves 13 and one-half hours of patrol deputy time. People taken into protective custody during mental health emergencies must be transported to hospitals in Amery, Eau Claire or Winnebago State Hospital in Oshkosh in eastern Wisconsin because only these hospitals have the staff and facilities to provide proper services.
State-imposed property tax levy limitations do not allow for the 24 additional law enforcement and criminal justice personnel proposed in the referendum, even though the county is the fastest-growing in Wisconsin and demand for public safety services has dramatically increased. By state law, the levy limit can only be exceeded through voter approval of a referendum.
The county is asking voters whether or not they support an ongoing annual public safety expenditure of approximately $3.5 million over and above state-imposed property tax limits beginning with the 2024 budget year. The additional tax levy would pay for salaries and benefits, squad cars and equipment for the new patrol deputies and investigators, the Sheriff said.
Sheriff Knudson is unaware of any organized opposition to the referendum. The additional $3.5 million expenditure would increase property taxes by $24.97 per $100,000 of equalized valuation. “It’s a matter of money. How much taxpayers can afford? Like I said, the need is there. The numbers are there. The only way we can do solve these problems is through this referendum. It’s up to the voters to decide,” he said.
The Public Safety Referendum will be on the April 4 election ballot. A “yes” vote authorizes the ongoing $3.5 million additional annual public safety and criminal justice expenditure beginning with the 2024 badge. A “no” vote does not authorize the ongoing expenditure.
I agree the need is there and I support this 100%.
We must move forward now as the problem is not going away and will only become more expensive and difficult to deal with as time goes on. As a taxpayer in St. Croix County I feel this is a necessary measure.