By Tom Larson
About 90 people gathered Tuesday to hear Stevens County Commissioners explain their vote to move ahead with a $15 million building project, and to ask that the board consider postponing plans because of the poor economic situation gripping the entire country.
The board convened its regular session at the courthouse, but moved the building discussions to the Morris Area Concert Hall so that enough seating was available.
Following the hour-long discussion on the building project, the board took no action to postpone plans or to schedule further public hearings on the issue.
The board in July voted 3-2 to move ahead with building a 40-bed jail, a new law enforcement center and remodel the courthouse. The county wants to begin construction this spring.
Almost 50 people attended the county's Truth in Taxation hearing last week -- primarily to talk about the building project -- and Tuesday's meeting was moved since the county board room and district courtrooms were too small to handle an audience of more than 50.
The issues, particularly concerning the jail, boil down to:
Many county residents say that the projected increase in taxes to pay for the project is too high, especially in a bad economy, and that the county is losing population and doesn't handle enough of a jail population to warrant a 40-bed facility.
The three commissioners who voted for the project -- Don Munsterman, Larry Sayre and Paul Watzke -- say the project is long overdue. The courthouse is in need of substantial repairs and moving law enforcement operations in conjunction with the jail construction will free up space to allow it to sell a property that now houses a county department and bring a department back into the courthouse.
Sayre also said that the tight economic times might help in keeping construction costs down because of increased competition among bidders looking for work.
The three commissioners briefed the audience on the history of the jail discussions over the last five years, including talks of building a regional jail with surrounding counties, a Regional Justice Center plan with Pope County, and a failed referendum on the jail issue in 2006.
Sayre said it was determined in the early 1990s that the courthouse remodeling project was needed but that no decision to move ahead was made at that time. He also noted that the county's jail was shut down by the Department of Corrections in the 1970s. Without a jail, security is a concern, with prisoners out among the public in the courthouse awaiting transportation to other jails or court appearances.
"This is not the way things are done," he said.
Charlie Berg, a spokesman for residents opposed to moving ahead on the project, presented numbers that indicated the project will cost taxpayers about $1.5 million per year, while continuing with the current system of transporting and board prisoners cost about $188,000 in 2007. Even accepting that the commissioners contend those numbers will be lower, it's still a sizable increase, he said.
"It'll cost one and a quarter million dollars to go the way you guys want to go," Berg said.
The commissioners and audience members debated costs for various aspects of the project, but County Coordinator Jim Thoreen said that it's difficult to pinpoint exact figures for projects that are intertwined until bids are in. He did note that the board voted to cap the entire project at the $15 million mark.
One audience member said the increased taxes of the project would be difficult for senior citizens to afford. Another noted that he's not able to afford his rising property tax bill with the rent he's getting for his land, and that he's forced to continue working even though he's beyond retirement age.
Others asked why the jail had to be built for 40 beds -- 20 cells double-bunked -- when the county has a daily average of about eight to 10 prisoners per day.
Watzke said that, because of Department of Corrections mandates, it costs the same to staff a jail that has five beds up to 40 beds. Beyond 40, the county then would have to pay more to provide programs for prisoners. And with 40 beds, there's the possibility of the county renting space to other counties seeking jail space for their prisoners.
Board chair Neal Hofland, who is retiring when his term expires this month, said he voted against the project but that he respected the right of the three commissioners to vote as they did.
He voted against it because of the cost and the uncertainty of whether the county's jail population would go up or down.
"I didn't want to commit to those taxes for 20 years for something that might not come about," Hofland said. "That's why I voted the way I did."
In other county business:
The commissioners voted to adopt the 2009 budget and levy with an overall increase of 4.21 percent over last year.
GeoComm presented the board options for updating the county's public safety radio system.
The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that any agency operating any wideband equipment as of January 2013 will be subject to fines and be required to turn off the offending equipment with no exemption for public safety.
The options brought to the county range in cost from $1 million to $1.7 million for a new dispatch console and portable radios for all agencies, including county, city and fire agencies. The board chose to look further into these options in the future.
Kayla Kloos contributed to this story.