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Jail site rejected

As the sun sets slowly on the Douglas County Jail, commissioners continue to clash over where to build a new facility.

A motion to proceed with a purchase agreement for a 91-acre site was swiftly rejected 3-2 during a special board meeting Tuesday.

"I look at the location out there, and I think it's a great commercial spot," said commissioner Jerry Johnson about the site on Highway 27 West and Interstate 94, "but I've always thought that our local government should have a place that is not part of a commercial area. I think there should be a little more pride in where we place this thing."

Commissioner Paul Anderson who, along with board chair Dan Olson, voted for the site, disagreed, calling it a "beautiful site for transportation," as it's easily accessible. Low bond interest and a contractors' high demand for work make it even more appealing.

"This is not necessarily my choice, but it probably is the most economic for the taxpayers of Douglas County," he said. "We have to make a decision, and we have to go forward now."

Olson added, "It's just beyond me that we're even still discussing this. We should have been building a long time ago."

The current jail and annex will be permanently closed August 1, 2009 by the Minnesota Department of Corrections if it's not brought into compliance.

Commissioner Bev Bales continues to advocate for property - either the current downtown location or 17 acres at the fairgrounds - the county owns.

She and Commissioner Norm Salto placed blame on the city of Alexandria for updating its comprehensive plan - which doesn't include a jail facility downtown - last June in the midst of the county's planning.

"I think it's very unfair for another government entity to change it in the middle," Bales said, adding that the city's recent letter supporting a facility at the 91-acre site doesn't clearly state the police department will build along with the sheriff's office.

Salto recalled asking city officials early last summer how the law enforcement center and jail fit into its comprehensive plan update; he didn't get an answer until a September meeting, he said.

"Everyone is sittin' there grinnin'... 'Ooh, we've changed the comprehensive use plan,' " Salto said, adding that the commissioners' jaws dropped when they found out. "That is what we've been up against. If the city wants to be a part of this solution, then they better belly up."

In an interview following the board meeting, Alexandria City Planner Mike Weber said commissioners never questioned downtown uses - including if the jail was one of them - during the extensive six-month-long public input period on the comprehensive plan update.

There was "ample opportunity for everyone to be involved in that process," he said, adding that commissioners attended several meetings throughout it.

The future land use map included in the city's comprehensive plan has been consistent since 1995. At no point during the 2007 update "was there any suggestion that we amend the map to include an expanded jail," Weber said.

Salto's suggestion of finding a private entity to build the jail, as well as Johnson's that they "ship" prisoners to other county jails, irritated Olson.

"All of these things have been looked at; we're at a point where we have to do something," he said.

Based on current rates, transporting prisoners out of county would cost taxpayers an additional $3.05 million annually, or $61 million prorated over 20 years.

"They are very conservative figures," Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen told commissioners.

And they don't include likely increases in liability insurance, inflation, inmate population, housing or gas prices. Transporting prisoners would also include the expense of remodeling the main jail into a 72-hour hold facility as well as laying off 19 current employees.

If the law enforcement center and jail are relocated out of the heart of the city, the Downtown Merchants Association (DMA) is concerned about the economic impact on downtown businesses; commissioners have received about 20 letters from downtown business owners objecting to the move.

"If we see the county government move to that part of the community, we're essentially moving our city," said Jon Sieve, owner of Traveler's Inn and DMA member. "I feel strongly about trying to keep the vitality of our center city."

While he understands land challenges and doesn't want to drag the process out any further, Sieve urged commissioners to give all viable sites one last look before following the "southward surge."

As a former downtowner, Olson doesn't "begrudge them for stating their opinions. I just wish they would have been made sooner."