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Advisory panel gets a county jail history lesson

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By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The panel reviewing Stevens County's proposed $15 million building and renovation project spent time -- and likely will spend even more -- on an overview of the county's jails and jail projects.

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The Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee met for 2-1/2 hours Monday night.

In addition to the county's history with jails, the committee also delved into the options the board considered before choosing its current plan.

The board approved the project in July 2008 but opposition to the project arose late in the year, and the board voted in February to delay the sale of jail bonds for 90 days and formed the facilities committee.

The committee is comprised of the five County Commissioners, three members of the Stevens County Taxpayers Committee, and three citizens selected by the county board. The group is scheduled to meet weekly and submit a report about its work by May 15.

The facilities committee is expected to meet with the project architect and review county building needs assessments at its March 16 meeting at 6 p.m.

County board chair Larry Sayre, who also was the county's sheriff until 2000, on Monday led the review of the county's jail history.

Cells from the old courthouse were moved into the current building when it was completed in 1956, and served as cells until they were licensed by the state Department of Corrections at least as a holding facility until the early 1990s.

Since 1980 -- when Sayre first entered the sheriff's office -- he said a new jail and law enforcement center were topics of interest discussed by the county and City of Morris, which also uses the county LEC as its headquarters.

In 1990, courthouse renovations also were discussed, but the county board at that time took no formal action on a plan.

From 2001 to 2004, Sayre sat on the Douglas County Jail Committee, which was studying a possible partnership with Stevens and Pope counties. Those talks, too, did not result in any specific action, although Douglas County has since approved building a new jail.

In 2004, Stevens County was among five surrounding counties that began discussions about a regional jail serving those counties. The concept was promising, Sayre said, but the committee eventually discontinued. He noted that many regional jail discussions have taken place around the state but that there currently is only one in operation in the state.

"I think this makes a whole lot of sense, but the regional concept, only one was put together," Sayre said. "It's a very good concept if you can accomplish it and if you can get it done."

The county placed a $7 million jail before voters in a 2006 referendum but that measure was defeated by a vote of 58 percent to 42 percent.

The next year, Stevens and Pope counties regrouped to study a Regional Justice Center in Cyrus to serve the two counties law enforcement and courts needs, but that endeavor also fell apart.

In January 2008, the county began research on what became the current project: a 20-cell, 40-bed jail with a new LEC, and a complete courthouse renovation that would allow the county to move Human Services back to the facility from its current location.

Committee member Jeanne Ennen asked why, since there were no public meetings regarding the current plan, the county board believed it was the best plan.

Member Neal Hofland, who retired from the board in December, said he took blame for not pushing harder for the public meetings.

"We did not do a good job informing the public," Hofland said. "We did not. And that's why we're sitting here today."

The panel received a large packet of documents that review some of the information the board used to decide on its current plan.

Several committee members asked about discrepancies in the costs, noting that in one case, the current plan is about $3 million more expensive than an option from a year ago that is similar to what the board approved.

County board members said the project has changed from those early cost projections and that they were given to committee members so they could understand how the project evolved until the board approved the final plan in July 2008.

Committee member Jerry Lesmeister pressed the issue of the county postponing all work on the project, particularly advertising and accepting bids, at least until the committee finished its review.

County board members Paul Watzke and Don Munsterman said they want the process to continue for timing reasons. The bids are scheduled to be advertised in early April and opened in early May.

Lesmeister indicated that the Taxpayers Committee might appear before the county board at its regular meeting to request that all work and expenditures related to the project be stopped.

"What's the purpose of us being here if you go out for bids?" Lesmeister said.

Watzke and Munsterman said that going out for bids did not mean the county has to accept them, and that the current economic climate might bring in very favorable bids.

Public's questions wanted

The Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee is seeking the public's questions about the county's $15 million building plans as the panel reviews the project over the next two months.

Submit written questions via email, regular mail or hand delivery to any of the committee's 11 members, or send questions to Stevens County Coordinator Jim Thoreen at P.O. Box 530, Morris, MN 56267,

or by email at jimthoreen@co.stevens.mn.us.

To see news stories, releases and full minutes of the Advisory Committee meetings, see the Collections section on the Sun Tribune Web site at

www.morrissuntribune.com,

or at the Stevens County Web site at www.co.stevens.mn.us.

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