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Group to provide eyes, ears for law enforcement

WANAMINGO -- Reduced police patrol hours may help ease Wanamingo's budget woes, but it will add to Hjermstad's worries about crime around the trailer park she manages with her husband, Morris.

She says community members will need to band together to fight the drug problems and thefts she argues have grown more common in recent years.

"Times have changed since I was growing up," she said. "I've seen some of the things that have gone on."

Hjermstad and a dozen other area residents were at Wanamingo City Hall Monday to learn more about forming a community watch group in a training session held by the Goodhue County Sheriff's Office. The meeting comes in the wake of a recent city decision to cut the number of police patrol hours it contracts with the county from seven hours per day to six.

That move will shave an estimated $13,000 off the city's 2011 budget -- one more in a long list of austerity measures enacted by the community this year as it confronts staggering deficits and a general fund in the red by nearly $150,000.

Goodhue County Sheriff's Office Patrol Commander Lyle Lorenson and deputies Josh Hanson and Breanna Hanson were on hand to answer questions from the public and give an overview of what it takes to form a community watch group.

"This wouldn't be a vigilante group or anything like that," deputy Josh Hanson told the group on Monday. "Your job would be to observe and report."

Patrol officers have a limited view from behind the wheel of a police cruiser, said Hanson, making cooperation from community members essential.

With reduced patrol hours, that's especially true in Wanamingo, he said.

"The more eyes and ears we have, the more effective we are," he said.

The community watch concept has taken hold in Goodhue County in recent years, said Lorenson, with a group forming in Florence Township and increasing interest in rural communities like Wanamingo and Pine Island.

He said the groups will become even more common as small towns look for new ways to get the same level of services out of ever-tightening budgets.

"It's about how we can get the core job done so we can balance this," he said.

Wanamingo City Administrator Michael Boulton, who helped bring the community watch idea to the city with other members of a Sheriff's Office focus group, said the group would not replace law enforcement, but would be an added supplement to ensure officers are not "blindly patrolling" for the few hours they are in the city.

As it copes with tough financial times, the city will need to get the most out of its limited resources, he said.

"It's about trying to use the few resources we have to the best of our abilities," he said.

The Goodhue County Sheriff's Office will hold another community watch training session at 6:30 p.m., Feb. 7 at the Wanamingo City Hall. Members of the public are invited to attend.