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Amid cost increases, Nobles County Attorney's offices eye potential benefits of contracting

While still providing services as municipal prosecutors to the city of Worthington and other Nobles County cities, the Nobles County Attorney's office has begun contracting with an outside firm to help cover staffing shortages.

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Prairie Justice Center (Tim Middagh / The Globe)
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WORTHINGTON — While the County Attorney’s office is most known for providing legal advice to the Nobles County Board of Commissioners and prosecuting felony and gross-misdemeanor criminal cases within the county, its responsibilities don’t end there.

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Since at least 2013, the Nobles County Attorney's office has also served as municipal prosecutor for the city of Worthington, through a contracted agreement.

“As municipal prosecutors,” said Nobles County Attorney Joe Sanow, “we are responsible for the charging and prosecuting of misdemeanor level offenses that occur within the city limits.”

In exchange for these services, the city of Worthington currently covers 25% of the County Attorney’s office's expenses. That number was based on Worthington’s caseload taking up approximately 25% of the County Attorney's office's time, though currently, that amount is closer to 30%.

The County Attorney's office does contract with several other cities within Nobles County to provide municipal prosecution service, such as Adrian and Round Lake. However, those contracts are on an hourly basis, due to the small number of cases.

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Fully staffed, the Nobles County Attorney’s office would employ nine people, including four attorneys, support staff, and a victim witness coordinator. However, Sanow noted that his office has had two assistant attorney positions open since March and May, respectively.

It’s why the County Attorney's office has been contracting with the firm Eckberg Lammers since July 1, resulting in an increased cost of operations for the attorney’s office — and subsequently, the city of Worthington.

During a special meeting of the Worthington City Council last Wednesday, Sanow told council members that his office was looking at a 10.8% increase in operating costs. This would result in Worthington paying a total $236,924 for 2023, in comparison to the $213,681 this year.

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“It would be more expensive than what we were paying for two in-house assistant county attorneys,” Sanow said, noting that his office will pay a flat fee of $25,000 a month for the remainder of 2022 as part of the contract with Eckberg Lammer.

However, the experience and flexibility of Eckberg Lammers’ team — some of whom have been practicing for over 20 years, Sanow notes — mean it brings a lot to the table. The Stillwater and Hudson-based firm has made a name for itself providing prosecution services across Minnesota and Wisconsin, including municipal prosecution in cities like Mankato.

Additionally, as part of that contract, Eckberg Lammers has agreed to help provide peace officer standards and training opportunities for local law enforcement, including use of force training.

“It's going to help them get the credits, they need to renew their… peace officer licenses,” Sanow said, noting it can help bring law enforcement agencies up to speed on new tactics, policies and techniques. “I think the additional benefits (from Eckberg Lammers) really add quite a bit of value to the whole process.”

While the current contract for municipal services with the city of Worthington runs through 2023, should the city choose not to renew, it would have the option of either finding another private firm to contract through or starting a municipal prosecutor's office within Worthington.

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“I think if you sit down and do a careful consideration about the benefits and costs of continuing with the county attorney's office, versus the other two options,” Sanow said, “this is still the most efficient, most cost-effective relationship. And I'm hopefully looking forward to continuing to serve as the city prosecutor's office for many more years to come.”

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Emma McNamee joined The Globe team in October 2021 as a reporter covering Crime & Courts, Politics, and the City beats. Born and raised in Duluth, Minn., McNamee left her hometown to attend school in Chicago at Columbia College. She graduated in 2021 with a degree in Multimedia Journalism, with a concentration in News & Feature Writing and a minor in Creative Writing.
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