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Beltrami County sheriff candidates debate

The Bemidji Area Beverage Association hosted a debate between Beltrami County sheriff candidates Bill Cross, left, and Phil Hodapp, right, Monday evening at Bemidji City Hall, where 45 people gathered to listen to responses to prearranged questions. Moderator Kris Cannon is in the center. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Beltrami County sheriff candidates differed on communications needs during a forum Monday night at Bemidji City Hall.

While most counties are adopting an 800 megahertz state-recommended communications system, Beltrami County and 14 northwest Minnesota counties are going their own way with a narrow band VHF digital system.

Sheriff Phil Hodapp said the 800 MHz system won't work in northwest Minnesota, while challenger Bill Cross, chief deputy for Wadena County, said he is now working to install the 800 MHz system there as it will be the radio system of the future statewide.

"We have thoroughly studied that, along with the other 14 counties in the northwest region, and the 14 counties in our area have decided not to go with the 800 MHz system because of the terrific cost," Hodapp said.

To implement 800 MHz in Beltrami County would cost $5.4 million to $9 million, he said, while finishing the transition to the narrow band VHF digital system will cost $200,000 to $500,000.

"This is one of the things we're working on to save you money," Hodapp said to about 50 people who attended the hour-long forum sponsored by the Bemidji Area Beverage Association. "This is tax dollars that you won't have to spend for us just to be able to talk on the radio, which we already do."

Cross said there are grant funds available from a number of sources to pay for the 800 MHz system, which all state of Minnesota agencies use, plus most local law enforcement in southern Minnesota. He is converting Wadena County to 800 MHz, mobile computers in squads, global positioning systems in squads and an updated records management system to be shared by four counties.

"There's a lot of federal grant money out there for 800 MHz and we decided to go that route because it turns out to be cheaper for us," Cross said.

"This is what you have to plan for in the future," he said, adding that he believes the 800 MHz system will be mandated statewide to communicate between counties or with the State Patrol.

The Beltrami County Board recently approved funding for 32 laptops for deputy squads and preparation for a new Computer Aided Dispatch system and records management system upgrade. Cross was critical of the need for a whole new records management system, saying the county already has an investement of $600,000 to $700,000 in the current system.

Hodapp said he has increased cooperation with police departments at both the Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations. He visits regularly with the Red Lake police chief and the county shares some records management with Leech Lake.

"I beg to differ with my opponent on that," Cross said. "I've heard differently. don't agree with the approaches with Red Lake. When I started, I could drive to Red Lake and knew all the officers by their first names. They did handle calls for us off the reservation. We did a program up there to train some as Minnesota peace officers, getting them licenses, and I would continue that."

Cross, a Beltrami County native, served as a Beltrami County deputy and chief deputy before moving on.

Hodapp said there are Red Lake and Leech Lake officers on joint task forces, which have been successful, such as the arrest of 50 "heavy drugdealers" at Red Lake.

The two candidates differed little on the BABA prepared questions -- none were taken from the audience.

They both agreed that it would be profiling for an officer to wait outside a bar for a drunken patron to drive off, agreeing that the best policy is to stop the person from driving and find an alternative way home.

"The solution here is for people not to get behind the wheel if they've been drinking and operate their motor vehicle," Hodapp said. "Certainly if a deputy is near a bar and he sees someone driving erratically, I would think they would suspect and investigate further and figure out what the cause of that erratic behavior might be."

Being near a bar would be a factor in their decision to stop the car, he said.

"Not everybody who leaves a liquor establishment is drunk," said Cross, adding he would uphold DWI laws but not park outside bars. Rather, as a deputy, he would go into the bars and talk to patrons and help prevent drunks from driving.

"Traffic is a necessary part of law enforcement," Cross said. "But sitting outside a bar would be profiling because you're waiting for someone to leave and you're assuming that person is going to be a drunk driver."

Both men said they run frugal budgets. Hodapp said the sheriff's budget, at $8.5 million, has ended under budget in three of the last four years. About $7 million comes from property taxes. Cross said Wadena County's budget of $2 million includes a four-year wage freeze.

And both said that the use of forfeited vehicles in DWI arrests is minor and is not used to support budgets, and fines mostly go to the state and also are not good items to frame a budget.

On the former issue, Hodapp said it is the county attorney's decision, and he has now an assistant county attorney working on forfeitures of which proceeds are split among severl agencies.