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Gordon Lea read a statement to Stevens County Commissioners Tuesday at the county courthouse. About 50 opponents of the county's plan to include a jail in a building project gathered to ask the commissioners to postpone plans until the public had a better idea how economic problems would affect their financial situation and that of the county. A motion to postpone the project was defeated by a 3-2 vote.

Commissioners vote down measure to postpone building

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Morris, 56267
Morris Minnesota 607 Pacific Avenue 56267

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Stevens County residents opposed to including a jail in the county's proposed building project asked for a postponement of the entire project on Tuesday, and two commissioners made the request official.

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The vote of the five board members broke the same as the vote to approve the $15 million project.

Commissioner Herb Kloos made a motion to postpone the project, and it was seconded by new commissioner Ron Staples. Commissioners Don Munsterman, Larry Sayre and Paul Watzke voted against delaying the project.

About 50 people met to discuss the building project during the commissioners' first meeting of 2009.

Earlier in the meeting, Sayre, Staples and Watzke took their oaths of office as newly elected board members, and other routine annual meeting business was wrapped up, such as committee assignments and meeting dates. Sayre was elected board chairman and Munsterman was chosen as vice chairman.

For a third time in a month, commissioners met with residents who are concerned about the cost of building and operating a jail, especially since the economy has taken a downturn.

Speakers on Tuesday indicated that the group isn't opposed to the courthouse renovations in the project, but are worried that the cost to maintain and operate the jail would be too much for taxpayers to bear.

The group spokespeople also presented the commissioners with a box of signed petitions in notebooks.

"This is unaffordable to the taxpayers," said Gordon Lea, who also asked the commissioners to vote on a measure to postpone the project and more concrete budget numbers on the potential expense of staffing and operating a jail.

"What we're asking for is for you guys to give us more information than what we have," Lea said.

John Stephens thanked the commissioners for their work on addressing the county's building needs, but added that if the commissioners ignored the petitions they would not be doing their jobs as public servants and would instead be conducting business as "dictatorial commissioners."

"We're not trying to kill the project," Stephens said, "we just want tax money spent wisely."

Sayre reiterated points he made at the earlier meetings, stating that the board has considered many options over several years for dealing with its jail needs, and that the current plan was deemed the best.

He also noted that by postponing the project, the county would still have to contend with a substandard public safety problem since it has no adequate retention facilities for prisoners while they await transport to other county jails.

The county has spent substantial money already planning the project that could be lost if it were delayed, and that the financial climate might prove beneficial because of the potential for highly competitive bidding and low interest rates.

Staples said he didn't believe the residents opposed to the project were out of line in requesting a more detailed cash flow estimate and that a project operations committee -- just formed earlier in the commissioners' meeting -- could address that issue.

Kloos hadn't made any comments at the two previous meetings, but said Tuesday he was concerned the county might be spending too much on the project. He made his motion to postpone the project until the county can figure out what the state's solutions to current budget problems will mean for counties.

Charlie Berg, another spokesman for the residents opposed to the project, said after the meeting that legal avenues could be pursued but he did not elaborate on specific actions the group might seek.

The county is on schedule to begin construction of the project this spring.

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