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Walz pitches public safety plan in Duluth

Police and fire officials said they can invest in personnel, infrastructure and technology if they receive an annual allotment of nearly $1.5 million under the governor's budget proposal.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz listens as city leaders discuss their needs during a roundtable session
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz listens as city leaders discuss their needs during a roundtable session in the mayor’s reception room at Duluth City Hall on Friday afternoon, Feb. 25, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

DULUTH — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz brought his statewide public safety tour to City Hall on Friday, receiving feedback on how local leaders could spend their slice of a proposed $300 million spending plan.

Walz said the city would stand to receive nearly $1.5 million annually over the next three years if his budget is ultimately adopted by the Legislature. The funds would give cities, counties and tribes broad discretion to spend on issues ranging from recruiting and hiring more police officers to purchasing new equipment and technology to investing in social programs aimed at reducing crime.

"It's really important to note every community is different and we're of the belief that we need to make sure that we're funding at the local level, so that local decisions can be made," Walz said.

"I think we see success stories in this community — the issues around crime, the numbers are impressive. This is a very safe community. It continues to be that way, and Minnesota is always one of the top three safest states. But we've seen violent crime increasing in our state. It's happening in many areas across the country."

Police Chief Mike Tusken said his agency has found success in pairing social workers with police officers to address issues involving mental health and addiction. But those programs are at capacity, with more clients than the department could possibly serve. More drug education for kids is also on the wish list, he said.

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Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, left, listens to Minnesota Governor Tim Walz speak
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, left, listens to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speak about what the proposed $300 million public safety plan would mean for Duluth during a roundtable session in the mayor’s reception room at Duluth City Hall on Friday afternoon, Feb. 25, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

With the department seeing an influx of retirements and struggling to hire new officers, Tusken said the agency needs to find ways to look at solutions to help manage cases and reduce human-intensive work.

"It is important for us to be able to purchase technologies that make us more efficient and effective," he told the governor. "A lot of it is just being able to deliver better customer service."

Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said his staff is "getting burnt out and morale is a little lower" after two years of operating under pandemic conditions without missing a single 911 call. Firefighters don't have the option to work from home, and they're dealing with aging infrastructure in the city, he said.

All of Duluth's fire halls were built before women ever were able to join the department, leaving "a lot of places for improvement in gender equality," Krizaj noted. Most stations have old, dorm-style sleeping quarters — in one case, a repurposed hayloft.

"That's the reality of the city of Duluth fire stations and some of our infrastructure here in Duluth," Krizaj said, noting research on the mental health and cancer risks associated with keeping staff in such close proximity. "It's not adequate for the wellness of our firefighters."

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson talks about some of the city’s needs during a roundtable session
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson talks about some of the city’s needs during a roundtable session with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz at Duluth City Hall on Friday afternoon, Feb. 25, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Mayor Emily Larson said Greater Minnesota has some unique challenges, including a lack of sufficient mental health beds and treatment options.

"I really appreciate that as you're putting this budget together, you are recognizing that local governments need to be able to make their own decisions about that based on their own needs, because our needs are very different than that of the Twin Cities," she told Walz. "Not better, not worse, not bigger, not smaller — just different."

Walz credited the local officials for taking the initiative to try out new programs, noting those can be difficult to fund through standard revenue streams, such as Local Government Aid.

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"We don't have an ability to try things and innovate because we're always just trying to maintain," he said. "We're always skating to where the puck has already been, instead of where it's going to be."

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz speaks to the press
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks to the press after a roundtable session about what the proposed $300 million public safety plan would mean for Duluth at Duluth City Hall on Friday afternoon, Feb. 25, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Walz argued the public safety plan, funded through a $7.7 billion state surplus, would "help us get on the front end of this, on the prevention side of things." He noted a concerning rise in shootings, carjackings and other violent crimes and said the issues aren't going to be limited to big cities.

Asked by the News Tribune about the prospects of getting the proposal through a politically divided Legislature, the Democrat said he believes the plan "makes really good sense" and that he'll be able to "find alignment" with Republicans.

"(What) gets things done in a political environment is if it's really what the public wants," Walz said. "Let's be very clear: The public expects safety, and they want that to be done. They also want the respect for their community autonomy to be able to do this; they know their communities better. So I think there's a strong agreement that we want to do this."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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