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Bemidji City Council: $10,000 allocated toward DWI Court

DWI Court, operating now in its fourth year on what was supposed to be a three-year-grant, will get some help from the Bemidji City Council this fall.

The council approved a $10,000 allocation Tuesday night to cover the one-year cost of frequent, random compliance checks.

The council voted 6-0 to fund the checks for one year. In the meantime, it hopes to meet in a joint session with the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners to discuss long-term funding options.

"It's a good program, great, but where are we going to come up with the $10,000?" Negard said.

For the one-year fix, the money will come from liquor store profits.

Funding for DWI Court is in place through Sept. 30. But the grant is expected to dry up. It takes roughly $82,000 to run the program.

Beltrami County District Judge Shari Schluchter said Beltrami County has agreed to fund the position for the probation officer, which is the largest expense for operating DWI Court. The Department of Public Safety is covering the cost for a car, phone and the necessary top-of-desk supplies.

Bemidji Police Capt. Bob Lehmann initially addressed the council and asked members to consider covering the $10,000 cost for two weekly overtime hours to conduct random compliance checks.

DWI Court, a collaboration of law enforcement, prosecution, probation and the judicial system, is proven to work. Aimed at repeat drunken driving offenders, participants commit themselves for 18-24 months to the intense supervisory program. They meet weekly with a probation agent, respond to unannounced yet consistent random alcohol checks and report biweekly to Schluchter.

There have been 18 graduates of the program; six more are set to graduate in March.

"This is a problem-solving court that works," Lehmann said. "This is a success story."

Lehmann said compliance checks are done at all times during days and nights.

"The random tests are imperative to this," Lehmann said. "We need these tests. We need to keep doing these tests."

He said participants have said that that even if they were tempted to have a drink, they do not do so because they know the one time they do will be the one time an officer shows up for a compliance check.

"This is a piece of the puzzle that cannot go away," Lehmann said.

Bemidji councilors did not dispute the project's success. They did, however, ask about the ratio of the participants who live in the city limits versus Beltrami County.

Lehmann said there are currently about 15 participants in the program, 10-11 of which live in the city limits.

Councilor Ron Johnson noted that it is possible for the program to have a full participant roster and still not have a city resident involved.

Lehmann said he did not see that happening as DWI Court has been consistent with having about two-thirds of its participants living within the city's borders.

DWI Court graduates, if successful, are spared longer jail sentences. Jail stays cost taxpayers about $75 per day; the typical DWI Court graduate spends 180 fewer days in jail.

"These are the people most likely to hurt somebody," said Mark Smith, who works with DWI Court through his position with the Department of Corrections. "They have proven they have an alcohol problem and can't control it."

City Attorney Al Felix said the city was not arguing whether the program was beneficial or effective but whether asking the city and county separately for funding each year was the most viable option.

What is the most efficient way to fund to the program, he asked.

Felix said Beltrami County already gets money from Bemidji taxpayers and suggested that city and council officials meet in a joint session to discuss the best options for long-term funding of DWI Court.