By Tom Larson
After welcomes and introductions, the panel reviewing Stevens County's $15 million building and renovation plan assembled an ambitious agenda for the 10 weeks leading up to the May 15 deadline to complete its work.
The Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee met for the first time Wednesday and compiled a list of about 20 topics it hopes to achieve before it is to submit a report on the county's plans.
The topics include visiting an existing county jail that is similar in scope to what Stevens County is proposing as part of its project, a review of the history of Stevens County's jail discussions, needs assessments, alternatives, and meetings with various facilities users.
The committee's consensus was to meet each week on Mondays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The 11-member panel is comprised of county commissioners Herb Kloos, Don Munsterman, Larry Sayre, Ron Staples and Paul Watzke. The Stevens County Taxpayers Committee chose Lu Rohloff, Jack Lampert and Jerry Lesmeister as its representatives, and the county board voted to seat Jeanne Ennen, Sheldon Giese and Neal Hofland.
Deb Hengel was hired to serve as facilitator, and Philip Drown was hired as meeting recorder and public information liaison. County Coordinator Jim Thoreen and Facility Operations Director Dave Schmidt will serve as committee resources.
The county board approved the $15 million project to renovate the courthouse and build a 20-cell, 40-bed jail and a new law enforcement center in July 2008. The decision came after the county, over the last four years, attempted to cobble together first a multi-county regional jail plan and then a Regional Justice Center proposal with Pope County. Those efforts did not succeed.
After the July vote, there was little dispute about the project. That is until late in 2008, when county residents began expressing concern that the project, especially the jail component, was too large and too expensive during a time when economies worldwide were tanking.
The jail is the obvious focus of the panel's review. There is little doubt the courthouse, which was built in 1956, is in need of substantial renovations. Schmidt guided a tour of the courthouse following Wednesday's meeting, but noted that he wouldn't be able to let the members visit some areas because they were unsafe. He also noted that thermal imaging camera shots of the building, which showed hot spots, indicated that heat loss was so great the structure resembled a "big ball of flames."
The county's law enforcement center also is in need of updating, especially with growths in technology and training, and with a new radio system being implemented statewide. A reorganized LEC also would need to be more closely tied to a jail, if one is constructed.
Hengel opened Monday's meeting by not only asking for introductions but a short explanation of why they are on the panel. The responses centered on concerns about the socio-economic implications, previous involvement in the jail's planning, a need to gather more information about how the board reached its decision last July, and how the largest building project in the county's history would affect citizens and other institutions.
Giese, who is Morris' Mayor, said, "Morris has nothing to do with the jail and it has everything to do with the jail."
The committee got into gear when it discussed ground rules for the weekly meetings. Their suggestions include: Being respectful of opinions; staying on course; getting members to participate and listen; review the process with an open mind and examine facts; share materials and information; keeping the discussions among the committee members; and agreeing that consensus would keep the process moving ahead.
Committee members also had a fairly involved give-and-take about what a report, which was called for in the county resolution forming the panel, would include and what conclusions it might offer.
Giese said he wasn't sure that the report should include recommendations, while Lesmeister said, "Hopefully, the (county) board would be open to a recommendation."
The report should reflect how taxpayers see the information, whether they are for or against the project, Lesmeister said.
Hengel suggested that the scope of the report would likely depend on how the committee's work progressed, and Munsterman said that a great deal of information needed to be reviewed, for the benefit of commissioners and citizens alike, before the members could shape the report.
"It'll put itself together as we go along," Munsterman said.
Hofland might have boiled down the committee's expectations saying, "Justify the cost we have for the problem we are solving."
Asked to identify resources that can be used, committee members came up with this list:
Tour a jail in another county, most likely a recently opened jail in Renville County;
Review a current operating statement for the county and the proposed jail, specifically;
Break down the current proposal, more closely examine architectural drawings and financial options;
Review a history of jail operations in the county;
Review the six scenarios the county considered before approving the current plan;
Obtain facts and testimonials from operating jails;
Assess the county's needs for security and efficiencies;
Count the number of jail cells available in West Central Minnesota and determine what the area's jail needs are;
Consult with members of the judiciary about trends in the 8th Judicial District and in the state;
Consult with Minnesota Department of Corrections personnel;
Discuss the county's tax capacity and levies;
Bring in courthouse employees and neighborhood residents to assess their ideas and concerns;
Get some indication about the timing of the project.
"Will it be one year, 10 years, 30 years?" Watzke said. "When will the project be done?"
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.
Send written questions only via email or regular mail 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 email@example.com