Minnesota's fence around the Capitol is costing $274 a day -- and it's staying up indefinitely

Minnesota's temporary fence around the state Capitol has cost taxpayers at least $38,000 -- and counting -- and state officials say the barrier will stay up indefinitely.

The decision to keep the fence up is a reversal in tone from last month, when officials said it would come down soon. During Monday's meeting of the Advisory Committee on Capitol Security, state officials said the Capitol has recently become the target of increasing vandalism. 

The fence has been in place since May 31. Large protests broke out after the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, prompting Gov. Tim Walz's administration to order the Minnesota National Guard and a large contingent of state troopers to guard the Capitol around the clock. The National Guard has gone home and most of the troopers have returned to their regular posts, but the fence has remained.

The fence cost $18,707 for installation plus $274 a day in rental fees, according to a copy of the contract with Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction and Keller Fence in St. Paul. The money is coming out of the Department of Administration's operational budget.

The fence -- and the locking of the Capitol because of the coronavirus pandemic -- has blocked the public from entering the building, even as the Legislature has held two high-profile special sessions this summer. A third special session is scheduled to start Wednesday.

"It’s helpful, and that’s the bottom line," State Patrol Col. Matt Langer said of the fence. "I would hope it could stay in place for the foreseeable future."

In the past two months, Langer said the State Patrol has "staffed the Capitol complex like we have never staffed it before” and is significantly over budget for security. The Capitol is "extremely large" to protect with troopers alone, added Capt. Eric Roeske, the head of the State Patrol's Capitol Security unit.

Administration Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis said the Capitol complex is increasingly a target. In recent weeks, taggers have put graffiti on concrete, statue pedestals and security bollards. Someone used a chisel to damage the Peace Officers' Memorial, she said.

The Peace Officers' Memorial is being repaired, Roberts-Davis said. She did not say whether anyone was caught or arrested for the incidents, and a follow-up email to the state Department of Public Safety went unanswered.

The most infamous incident on the Capitol grounds in recent weeks happened June 10, when protesters toppled the Christopher Columbus statue. No one has been arrested in that incident. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension turned over the case to the Ramsey County attorney in July, and prosecutors are "getting close" to a charging decision, Langer said.

The fence has many critics. 

State Sen. Scott Dibble said the Walz administration should take it down by January, when the Legislature is scheduled to start its 2021 session.

"I’ll just make the point that the fence is ugly and sends a really negative message," said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.

 Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who has argued for fence removal in July, said she also wanted an answer by January so the public would know how to engage with lawmakers.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea pushed for a timeline on fence removal, and said the court wants to hear cases in its Capitol courtroom in September.

"It’s almost middle of August now. So what is the deadline for when we’re going to have a plan here?" Gildea asked.

Monday, no one provided any timelines. Roberts-Davis made a cost-savings argument, pointing to the recent $310 million restoration of the Capitol and said the state must protect its investment.

“What I would hate to see is us take the fence down and go through that expense and then end up in a position where we have to put the fence back up because of something that’s happened again," Roberts-Davis said.