South St. Paul asks county for help with disabled housing

September 17, 2018

South St. Paul is seeking help from Dakota County in dealing with what officials say is a disproportionate number of residents receiving state assistance because they are disabled and low-income, a category that includes senior citizens, people with mental and physical disabilities, chemical dependency and mental health issues.

The City Council drafted a resolution in late August asking for county to help alleviate what they say is a strain on city resources caused by too many police calls, some from disabled people who are part of the state’s housing support program.

“Some of these calls, they’re time consuming, they’re mental health issues,” said South St. Paul Police Chief Bill Messerich. “They usually involve two officers and they take longer than your average call.”

The city wants the county to provide “an experienced social worker” to be housed at the police department, and the revisions to how the county’s 911 dispatch center is funded so that the county levy covers the cost.

The city also raised public safety concerns, including the shooting of two South St. Paul police officers July 19 by a man with a mental illness. Dustin Allen Bilderback, 33, had been living in a South St. Paul apartment and receiving rental assistance and services from the state when he injured two officers.

City Council member Todd Podgorski, who spearheaded the resolution, said he’s heard about high numbers of 911 calls for years but the recent incident spurred him into action.

“After seeing our officers shot, that really motivated me to have us do more,” Podgorski said.

County officials said they were already responding to the city’s concerns when the resolution was drafted. They recently pledged to hire a mental health coordinator to be shared by the West St. Paul and South St. Paul police departments. The county is also tracking the people who make frequent 911 calls and trying to determine why they’re calling so often.

“It’s like they took a list of things we were working on and dealing with,” said Dakota County Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord. “I think they thought they were supporting our efforts, but it comes across a little differently.”

Gaylord also said she has yet to see any numbers to support the city’s claims of excessive 911 calls related to people with disabilities — and that there may be other reasons for them.

South St. Paul is an aging community, and older people may be calling more for medical assistance, she said. “To say it’s all just one thing … I have not seen the factual backup to that,” Gaylord said.

Podgorski, who is running against Gaylord for her county commissioner seat, said the county’s efforts aren’t enough. “It’s helpful, but they need to do more,” he said. “To me, it’s disappointing that it took such a critical incident to have them respond more appropriately.”

Podgorski said he wants the county to explore other options for housing people with mental illnesses, including building 16-bed mental health treatment centers.

More calls, more officers

Dakota County social services staff acknowledge that West St. Paul and South St. Paul have slightly more than their share of people receiving housing support. Those who qualify live independently but receive a rent voucher and may also receive services such as help with cleaning or money management.

Andrea Zuber, Dakota County social services director, suggested that the two cities might have more disabled and low-income tenants because accessible properties there are more affordable and available.

Messerich gave an example of one South St. Paul apartment building where the residents receive housing support. In 2009, before it housed people with disabilities, residents called police 17 times. Between 2011 and 2018, that same building averaged 57 calls a year.

The police department has responded to increasing 911 calls by hiring hired two new officers this year plus a part time clerical worker. The 2019 budget proposes hiring another officer and clerical worker to do community outreach. South Metro Fire, the collaborative fire department that responds to both West and South St. Paul, handles many medical calls to 911. It plans to hire two more firefighters if the 2019 budget is approved, said Chief Mike Pott

Police calls to properties where people receive housing support aren’t the only reason for the increase in calls, Messerich said, but they are a significant factor.

Dakota County social services staff said they hope the recent shooting doesn’t further stigmatize people with disabilities — especially those with mental illness — or keep them from accessing services they need.

“We support thousands of people who have mental health challenges and disabilities across Dakota County who are living very peacefully and successfully,” Zuber said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781

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