A letter in the Feb. 25 issue of The American, “Leadership lacking on reentry home,” about a lack of leadership from the Prior Lake City Council with respect to the reentry home, as well as a follow-up article about the same issue, deserves some balance.
Both the letter and article lacked information that has not been widely disseminated in the public conversation. I will share that here.
I appreciate the letter writer’s concern and passion. She raises reasonable points and I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle as is often the case with public policy.
First, a necessary disclaimer: I am speaking as an individual member, not on behalf of the entire city council.
To me, good public policy must meet three rules: It must be equitable, simple and cost effective.
I was called out in the letter, but the council was 5-0 in opposition to this property being utilized as a reentry home. The council consistently requested the county either raze the property or use it for homeless families.
The phrases “warehousing” and “dormitory” did not originate with me. The first I heard them was from a county commissioner at a public meeting about the reentry home on Nov. 1, 2022. I don’t believe the commissioner’s intent was negative nor was he endorsing this approach.
It should be noted a dormitory approach to this societal challenge is operated by Damascus Way in several communities. A 30-bed facility in Golden Valley opened in 2021 and they have two facilities in Rochester (25 beds, opened 2006; 24 beds, opened 2016).
At the Nov. 1 meeting it was disclosed that the reentry home would house sex offenders.
The county originally purchased this property with the intent of razing it to remove access points on County Road 42. This is common on busy roads and a good practice.
Unbeknownst to our community, that intent changed. There are 105 recently released prisoners in our county that are struggling to find stable housing. Most would agree this is a problem that needs to be addressed. A meeting of a faith-based group two years ago in which several elected leaders were present decided this property would be well-suited as a reentry home. Legwork began with the county to make this happen. There was no conversation with our city or the neighborhood.
There may never have been a conversation with our city or the neighborhood but for the neighbors inquiring with workers at the property. The county was quietly shoehorning a reentry home into a residential neighborhood. The neighborhood was understandably alarmed and entered opposition mode. So did our city council and staff. The process was abhorrently exclusive.
Research found another reentry home in a Shakopee neighborhood. That neighborhood was made aware of their reentry home by the Prior Lake residents and they were invited to attend the Nov. 1 meeting. They did attend and were visibly shaken.
The state provides cover for counties to implement reentry homes. Counties are not required to inform communities into which they establish these programs. I’m going to posit this is because these policymakers knew the reception would not be warm, the struggle uphill, if they had to involve the neighbors. So, discard transparency, bring in central planning.
This reentry home will not be licensed. Residents will not have 24/7 supervision. The nearest transit stop is a mile away. There is a children’s playground across the street. There are several commercial childcare facilities nearby.
The county’s operational budget for both the Prior Lake and Shakopee reentry homes will be $400,000.
This discussion is entirely about policy. I have urged our county commissioners and staff to consider the possibility that they are chasing poorly crafted public policy.
At a Dec. 20 county reentry home workshop, there was a consistent message about these homes: “Success is predicated on neighborhood support. We want the tenant to see someone throwing the ball to their child, mowing their lawn.”
If the success of the reentry home is predicated on neighborhood support, but you’re not going to communicate with the neighborhood or request their support and buy-in, it would seem you are establishing a dichotomy.
I disagree with the public policy allowing this to happen.
This policy is taking a greater societal problem and making it a problem for a specific neighborhood that did not volunteer for this experiment. A neighborhood that has a reasonable expectation that a concentration of ex-convicts would not be placed in a commercial operation within their residential setting shortly after leaving prison. The neighborhood is traumatized. Our residents may lose property values and real if not psychological safety.
This commercial operation is antithetical to our ban on short-term rentals. The county can do this if they maintain four or fewer occupants.
A single prisoner being released and living in a home, hopefully with other friends or family, is reasonable to expect next door. A concentration of ever-changing, recently released prisoners, with no family and friends living with them, is not reasonable.
The letter labels our residents as NIMBYs. I would suggest no one would want this in their backyard, particularly if they have children.
The 105 ex-convicts in our county struggling to find housing certainly deserve a shot, but they don’t deserve, at four people per home, the opportunity to disrupt the ethos of 26 neighborhoods.
A dorm-style approach may not be ideal but to me is the most acceptable option based on my views of public policy. On balance, it is a solution carried by more of society and not a specific neighborhood.
The letter’s author felt our council lacked leadership on this. This is not about leadership; this is about differences of opinion and policy direction.
Because of our affected residents’ efforts, and that of our council and city staff, we received the following accommodations from the county:
-Clients will have historical ties to Scott County.
-No criminal sexual conduct offenders will be placed in the home.
-The driveway will not be relocated to the back of the home.
-A community committee will be created to address concerns and stay engaged with community stakeholders.
-Additional landscaping barriers will be evaluated and implemented to provide more privacy in the backyard of the home.
-The proposed hours of supervision by Damascus Way will be significantly increased from what was originally proposed.
Good on our residents for their impactful leadership, but even with the concessions, in my opinion, we all lost.
The letter’s author was “appalled” by city official’s actions. What I find astonishing is the process and the system’s lack of empathy for the existing neighborhood residents.