Tom Toratti pulls out Koochiching County’s outdoor recreation map. He starts pointing to picnic areas and campsites; boat landings, docks and parking lots; hiking, ATV and snowmobile trails. Just about everywhere he points is a testament to the work that Sentencing to Service crews have done to build or keep the county amenities functioning.
“We’ve got 280,000 acres of public land,” says Toratti, who is a county forester. “It’s really easy to come up with brilliant ideas for public access. But the maintenance of that is a nightmare.”
There’s no way, he says, that the county can afford to hire staff or outside contractors to build and maintain all that outdoor infrastructure. “The money just wouldn’t be there. It just wouldn’t be an option,” Toratti says.
Doing work that wouldn’t get done
The solution is STS, a partnership between the county and the state Department of Corrections. The state runs STS crews in 68 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. State crew leaders are members of AFSCME Local 2728. (Some counties also run their own crews, based on the state model.)
In fiscal 2010, the state’s 80 crews saved local taxpayers more than $10.6 million. The work that crews did would have cost $8.3 million more to do some other way, according to figures local governments provided the Department of Corrections. STS also saved counties $2.3 million more because work crews are more cost-effective than sentencing these same offenders to jail.
Typically, nonviolent offenders wind up on STS crews because a county judge sentences them to perform “community service.” Sentences usually are punishment for petty misdemeanors, for minor drug offenses, or for violations such as drunken driving or driving without a valid license. Sometimes, offenders perform community service in order to reduce their jail time or to work off fines they can’t pay.
Most of the people on crews are “the working poor, people who are just trying to get by,” says Jim Edin, a a crew leader for Hennepin County’s STS program and a member of Local 34.
Crew leaders say STS lets offenders pay their debt to society in a productive way and gives communities an affordable way to accomplish hard, physical work they could not otherwise get done. The state and community split the cost.
Everyone has seen crews that clean litter from highways, says Local 2728’s Steve Borough. However, as the Koochiching County map of trails, boat landings and picnic areas points out, his STS crews have done much more than that.
Borough has supervised crews for 16 years. Those crews have also demolished abandoned houses. Shoveled snow. Painted fire hydrants. Built vandal-proof picnic tables. Worked with community groups on recycling drives, parades and festivals. “Just about anything you can think of, we’ll tackle,” Borough says.
STS doesn’t ‘steal’ regular jobs
The nature of STS means crews do a lot of grunt work. They are some of the first groups deployed to clean up after storms or natural disasters.
Edin’s crews, which work primarily in the Three Rivers Park District, spend most of their time clearing brush or chopping wood. The park district sells the final product as firewood. Other crews in Hennepin County do basic landscaping, or park and boulevard maintenance.
Crew leaders are quick to point out that they don’t undercut local public works departments or their jobs. When STS crews show up, they either do work that local communities don’t have adequate staff to perform, or they make it possible for public works crews to do more.
“Any jobs that would be done by union workers, we can’t do,” Edin says. “I think that’s fair. I don’t run equipment that the park workers would run and I don’t do the type of work that they would do. We just enhance what they do.”
“We’ve got a real good working relationship with all the other members,” says Mark Berg, a member of Local 2728 who supervises crews in a parallel state program called Institution/Community Work Crew. “They understand that we’re not here to take any jobs. From the workload I see, they’re pretty strapped due to the budget and everything else. They’re pretty pressed on being able to get all their work done, not counting all the extra stuff that we do.”
Berg’s crews, for example, were the difference in building the trails, gardens, waterfalls, and gazebos in Plymouth’s Millennium Park. The park is a huge money-maker for the city, which rents it for weddings and other events.
Crew leaders fight back to save program
Because STS accomplishes so much, crew leaders were shocked when Gov. Tim Pawlenty and some legislators tried to terminate the program on June 30, 2010. Crew leaders swung into action.
“We stayed up late and wrote letters and made phone calls and made things happen,” Berg says. “We turned the table.”
“We went to our commissioners, all the legislators, everybody from the governor on down,” Borough says. “They all received packets showing what we do. By they time we were done, they knew who we were.”
“A lot of these people started to understand what we do and that it was valuable,” Berg says.
The uprising saved the program – for now. Counties agreed to pick up a larger share of the cost, saving 80 jobs and the work the programs deliver.
“It was proven to all the counties – it’s going to cost them more to get rid of us than it is to save us,” Borough said. “This program, I’m sold on it. I’m looking to keep my job and everything else, but it’s just a wonderful program. If this isn’t done anymore, who does it? That’s the sad part, nobody will.”
Adapted from the January/February 2011 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine