It is not his normal job, but Winona County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Charles Rolbiecki filled in on Monday, running the courthouse metal detector.
by CHRIS ROGERS
The private security firm that guarded the Winona County Courthouse quit last month. For years, Winona County has hired Rochester-based Premier Security to provide armed guards at the courthouse. In late October, the company decided to cancel that contract, and on November 29, the private guards worked their last day at the courthouse. Winona County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) deputies and jail staff are working overtime shifts to guard the courthouse while county leaders try to figure out a long-term solution.
“It puts us in a big bind,” Sheriff Ron Ganrude said.
Premier Security’s decision comes amid a yearlong debate between Ganrude and the County Board over courthouse security. Ganrude wanted to hire one licensed deputy to augment Premier Security’s guards. Licensed peace officers are more highly trained and have more clear-cut legal authority to make arrests, but are much more expensive than private guards. The County Board questioned the need for a licensed officer, and Ganrude and the County Board argued repeatedly about the qualifications and merits of private guards versus deputies. County Attorney Karin Sonneman issued a legal opinion stating that only licensed deputies should guard the courthouse and that employing armed private guards was legally questionable. Following Sonneman’s opinion and partly at the suggestion of the County Board, Ganrude changed his request from one additional deputy to supplement Premier Security to three additional deputies to replace Premier Security.
“The statement made the County Attorney really put us behind the eight ball,” Premier Security CEO Dan Walker said of his decision to cancel the contract. “I truly believe there are some inaccuracies in what she did, but I don’t have a leg to stand on.” He added that, for his company, “There’s no positive that could have come out of this.”
Although Sonneman’s opinion may have convinced Walker that the writing was on the wall, the County Board did not make a decision on Ganrude’s request until mid-October, when it gave the sheriff $115,000 to spend on whatever staffing solution he chose. It was a $30,000 increase over the current courthouse security budget, but far less than the $255,000 Ganrude was asking for to hire three full-time deputies. It is not enough to hire more than one full-time deputy and seemed to signify that Ganrude would need to continue employing private guards at least part-time. “Off the top of my head, I see no way that an additional $30,000 will provide adequate security,” Ganrude said at the time.
Ganrude said he was still mulling his options when Premier Security canceled the contract. The sheriff acknowledged that he was considering canceling the contract himself, but he was not ready to do so yet. Ganrude said he had not yet decided what to do. “We were talking about it here, debating it, and then Premier Security pulls out,” he stated. “I was looking at all the options. Obviously, they pulled out and left me with one less option,” he continued.
For now, the courthouse will be guarded by one armed deputy and one jail staff member armed with a Taser but no firearm, Ganrude explained. That is a step down in security from the two gun-toting guards Premier provided, Ganrude acknowledged. “That’s where we’re going to have to make sure that the police department is aware that they may need to respond over there to anything and that my staff here at the law enforcement center will have to be a little more available,” he stated. The Winona police station and the WCSO are right next to the courthouse.
Guarding the courthouse with existing staff on overtime is just an interim solution, Ganrude said. He intends to ask the County Board later this month to fund two new full-time deputy positions — a cost of around $170,000 a year. “We’re going back to ask for two [deputies] because they didn’t give us three,” Ganrude explained. “I can cover it with two just not as well as I would like to,” he added. Ganrude said he did not consider hiring another private security firm to guard the courthouse because of his belief and Sonneman’s legal opinion that courthouse guards should be licensed deputies. “I just feel like it’s a big liability that we’ve had for a long time,” Ganrude told the County Board earlier this year. “We should have someone over there that’s a licensed officer for the security, not just of the employees and the judges, but all the people that come and go from that building on a daily basis.”
Ganrude said he expects the County Board to consider his request at its December 27 meeting. It is unclear whether the County Board will support the increased funding Ganrude is seeking. While commissioners Jim Pomeroy and Marie Kovecsi have been supportive of giving Ganrude funding for more deputies, commissioners Greg Olson, Marcia Ward, and Steve Jacob have been steadfast in resisting. “The money has to come from somewhere, and I represent the people who have to pay for this,” Jacob said. In interviews, Olson questioned whether the courthouse was really more dangerous than unguarded County Board meetings. “Maybe you’re not going to get everything you want, but you’re going to improve [courthouse security],” Olson told Ganrude, when proposing to give the sheriff $115,000 instead of $255,000.
The County Board has already set the preliminary tax levy for 2019 too low to fully balance the county budget, so if the County Board grants Ganrude’s funding request, it would either further drain the county’s reserve funds or require the County Board to make budget cuts elsewhere. On the other hand, if county does not develop a long-term solution for courthouse security staffing soon, overtime pay could add up.