Ramsey County commissioners voted unanimously to approve joint powers agreements between the county and the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, which governs the Fair, that makes the county sheriff’s office the lead agency in coordinating the security effort and providing the majority of law enforcement officers. Commissioners, who asked for the proposed agreements last month, approved two contracts: one that covers the 12-day Fair, which runs Aug. 26 to Sept. 6, and the other for non-Fair dates through 2021.
For the first time, the Fair will have metal detectors at gates, which will be secured by Minnesota State Patrol troopers. The plan was to use them during last year’s Fair, which was canceled because of the pandemic.
In 2019, more than 2 million people attended the State Fair, which provides an annual economic impact of an estimated $300 million, with the majority in Ramsey County.
Security at the Fairgrounds became an issue when the Fair this past spring decided to disband its decades-long police department and instead turn to an outside agency to provide security. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety recommended that the sheriff’s office take the lead.
Several commissioners made it known before Tuesday’s vote that it’s not a given the sheriff’s office would continue with services at the Fairgrounds beyond this year.
To that end, Commissioner Jim McDonough asked that the contract be amended to include that by Oct. 1, the county manager will convene stakeholders to review an after-action report and start conversations about security at the Fairgrounds.
“I am still not sold on doing this … though I believe it is very good,” Commissioner Rafael Ortega said. “So we should be having that conversation about, do we want to opt in again? … When it comes back to the conversation, it should be, convince us of how do we cover our liabilities even better?”
Overall risk and liability has been a big concern for county commissioners and staff. The contracts state that the Agricultural Society will “provide for the full coverage, defense and indemnification of the County and its employees, officials, representatives and agents” from any potential claims and lawsuits.
Sheriff Bob Fletcher told commissioners Tuesday that in addition to the Agricultural Society’s intent to purchase $10 million in police professional liability insurance, the Fair’s capital assets are around $60 million.
“Should there be a judgment against the Fair … their assets would come into play,” Fletcher said.
Gov. Tim Walz, in a Monday letter to commissioners, called the county’s work in developing a security agreement on short notice “admirable and appreciated.”
“The State Fair is an event of statewide importance,” Walz wrote.
The state’s Department of Administration is working with the Agricultural Society to secure the insurance policy, which will include the county as insured and “mitigate risk for Ramsey County taxpayers,” the letter read.
Walz suggested that should “unthinkable circumstances render this coverage insufficient, the State could consider, with approval from the legislature, further support to Ramsey County to avoid an undue impact” on county taxpayers.
The Fair is spending $144,000 to rent metal detector equipment for the 2021 fair, which doesn’t include labor costs.
Last month, after the sheriff’s office and Fair staff researched options and determined the feasibility of patrolling the Fairgrounds, Fletcher recommended that the county move forward with developing a formal agreement at an estimated cost of $1.89 million charged to the Fair. That cost is expected to decline slightly, Fletcher said this week, because the State Patrol plans to commit 30 state troopers under a separate contract with the Agricultural Society.
The sheriff’s office will have to ensure there are “enough law enforcement officers, up to 200 per day” during the Fair,” according to the county’s contract. The sheriff’s office plans to provide 50 deputies each day, to go along with the 30 state troopers, 20 deputies from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and 100 licensed officers from departments throughout the state.
The contracts call for the Agricultural Society to pay Ramsey County $80 per hour per employee, except on county-recognized holidays, such as Labor Day, where pay would be $100, according to the proposed contracts. The fee covers the hourly wage, which will be between $35 and $40, and cost of medical benefits.
Set by commissioners in December, the $80 fee is the county’s standard fee the sheriff’s office charges for law enforcement services.
Fletcher said the sheriff’s office also plans to have a “group of ambassadors — people of color — on the grounds there to mitigate and to deescalate” before problems grow.
“That’s going to be something that’s never been done before at the Fair,” Fletcher added.