The St. Louis County Board approved its $407 million 2020 budget on Tuesday in Duluth, but not before an inflammatory debate about $16.6 million in local corrections funding.

Commissioner Keith Nelson leveled a series of unverified allegations at Arrowhead Regional Corrections and the Northeast Regional Corrections Center it operates, setting up a contentious morning over a budget that otherwise sailed through to approval.

Nelson said illegal drugs are widely available inside NERCC in Saginaw, and said drug-sniffing dogs aren’t used enough at the facility. He alleged that ARC failed to conduct background checks for employees, and that it improperly handled the dispensing and disposal of prescription drugs. He said he met a small group of employees, who claimed to be afraid of retribution, at his private residence and they informed him of further complaints. He described complaints involving a staffer who distributed pornography and guards selling cigarettes one at a time to inmates.

Keith Nelson
Keith Nelson

At one point, Nelson stopped to acknowledge County Administrator Kevin Gray’s facial expression.

“I saw the grimace,” Nelson said. “I understand the grimace. We can’t even afford to do background checks.”

Nelson later told the News Tribune that he understood there were background checks being conducted throughout the system — but not the more intense ones, available to employees in law enforcement, that he favored.

By the time the ARC budget was approved, 6-1, the damage was done. Nelson’s allegations drew immediate rebuttals from a pair of fellow commissioners and ARC director Kay Arola, who was on hand in the audience at the St. Louis County Courthouse.

“I am outraged and appalled that these kinds of statements are being floated in a public forum,” said Arola, who added that the county risked violating privacy laws affecting personnel for bringing up at least one of the incidents.

Frank Jewell
Frank Jewell

“I am the current chair of the ARC board,” Commissioner Frank Jewell said. “It’s offensive that all of this stuff is spewed about how terrible these people are and how badly they do their work.”

Jewell, Nelson and Commissioner Beth Olson are St. Louis County commissioners who sit on the ARC board, which is also made up of five members from the other counties involved — Carlton, Cook, Koochiching and Lake.

Nelson’s prevailing complaint about the ARC budget leading up to the public showdown was that St. Louis County supplied 80% of a $22 million budget paid for by the counties who use ARC. (The state also supplies an additional $6 million.) In Nelson's reasoning, St. Louis County, with three votes, wields nothing close to the majority influence on the ARC board that its $16.6 million budget says it deserves.

“The other counties work with us,” Jewell said, rejecting Nelson’s argument. “We come up with things; we generally come to agreement.”

Arola defended the corrections network that falls under the ARC budget, including funding for probation, specialty courts and juvenile programming. Recidivism among offenders who encounter ARC is down among state and national averages, she said. She described St. Louis County’s portion of the budget increasing because it ordered 13 additional employees across the past six years for positions in probation and specialty courts.

“That is an option you have chosen,” Arola told Nelson and the board.

The investments in probation and specialty courts for juveniles, drug violations, mental health-related offenses and drunk driving were praised for being more effective than the use of incarceration alone. The shift to newer programs was used to also help describe the declining inmate populations at ARC’s adult and juvenile corrections centers.

Beth Olson
Beth Olson

Olson criticized her colleague for using “a bully pulpit.” She apologized for being a part of a board that expressed untruths, and said Nelson's allegations needed to be corrected in a public setting.

Olson agreed that there were challenges ahead, including a need to offer a better program for the rising number of female offenders.

“The way to fix things isn’t by bullying, sensationalizing or by intimidating, but by working with our partners and hearing them, not trying to trash them publicly,” she said.

At one point, Nelson said he would be leaving the ARC board after 18 years, and appeared to do so with a flamethrower. He promised to have evidence for all of his allegations, but offered only his words throughout the meeting.

The budget itself was unanimously approved without further question, marking the county’s largest budget to date. The county said in a news release Tuesday that it reflected “the reality of increasing costs to provide the core services that citizens expect.” The 2020 budget, at $407,171,161, finds just over a third of the budget (35%) funded by the property tax levy.

The budget includes increased investment in public works equipment and materials to support the county’s road and bridge infrastructure. It also includes investments in public safety and in programs that address substance use and mental health, as well as other services for vulnerable adults and children. Additionally, it addresses the cost of wages and benefits, the county said.

“This budget speaks to the interests and needs of our community,” said Olson, who chaired the Finance Committee this year. “It reflects investments that will bring cost savings down the line or will deliver necessary services to our citizens.”