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Taxpayers present their side of jail debate

More than 500 people attend a Stevens County Taxpayers Committee meeting to discuss the county's proposed $15 million building project on Thursday at the Morris National Guard Armory. Photo by Sue Dieter, Sun Tribune.1 / 3
Tim Thompson from the Minnesota Department of Corrections explained that the DOC doesn't interpret the state statute on county jails literally. Photo by Sue Dieter, Sun Tribune.2 / 3
Stevens County Auditor/Treasurer Neil Wiese spoke to a group of more than 500 people about the county's proposed building project at the Morris National Guard Armory Thursday3 / 3

By Sue Dieter

Sun Tribune

More than 500 people were at the Morris National Guard Armory on Thursday night to hear views on Stevens County's building proposal from a group calling itself the Stevens County Tax Payers Committee and county residents.

The meeting was called to explain the short and long term cost-liability to the county tax payers for the jail part of the $15 million project and express the perceived irrational financial decision made by three county board members.

Jerry Lesmeister acted as moderator for the meeting. He explained that the meeting was not a debate.

"The commissioners were invited to listen, not to speak," he said. "We have no need to hear their positions."

A panel made up of John Stephens, Charlie Berg and Gordy Lea presided over the meeting.

Tim Thompson of the Minnesota Department of Corrections spoke first and was asked "Are we breaking the law by not having a jail and do we need a jail?"

Thompson replied by reading the state statute that states, "Each County shall provide at the county seat, and keep in good repair, a suitable courthouse supplied with fireproof vaults, a suitable and sufficient jail and other necessary buildings."

Thompson explained that the DOC does not enforce that statute "that literally so we say that every county has to have a county jail."

He noted that because the statute's language says the county "shall" that it usually means you have to do it. But he said that the department interprets the statute as preventing a county or organization from building a jail somewhere other than the county seat.

"Now, some legal counsel may look at that and say, 'No, Department of Corrections, you have not been interpreting that correctly, and any counties that don't have a jail have to build one,' " Thompson said. "But I don't know if that's the case. I'm not a lawyer."

Thompson said there are currently six or seven counties that don't have a jail.

"Actually, that makes our job easier. Then we don't have to go out and inspect them."

Thompson was also questioned about DOC requirements on the size of a county jail and staffing.

"We're not going to tell you how big of a jail you need."

As for staffing, Thompson said the current regulations allow that one person can supervise up to 15 inmates. In other words, the dispatcher could also supervise the inmates. However, Thompson said he believes that is a very unsafe way to run a jail and he believes that regulation will be revised so that sole supervision is no longer allowed. That would mean a county would need both a jailer and a dispatcher at all times.

Thompson noted that it appears the Stevens County proposal took that into account when deciding to build a 40-bed jail and staff efficiencies appear to built into the plan.

Stevens County auditor/treasurer Neil Wiese took issue with that notion.

"We've been told that the larger the jail, the more efficient. I don't agree."

Wiese said that based on conversations with auditors in counties that operate jails, he believes the $260,000 projected cost to operate the jail is too low and suggested that $650,000 is more realistic.

Wiese outlined a projection of costs for the project that he had calculated. He noted that the county's portion of the gross levy for 2009 is $4,673,398. He figured that the levy for debt service on a $9.5 million general obligation jail bond will be $767,790 a year. Additionally, the county is planning to issue $1.5 million in capital improvement bonds, with the levy for debt service for that bond totalling $124,743 a year. Wiese also forecast a loss of interest income of approximately $180,000 from the $4 million in reserve funds that will be used for the project.

Wiese did allow for a savings of $180,000 a year in lodging and transportation of inmates. He figured a total of $1,445,000 a year in additional costs.

When that's divided by the current gross levy amount, it equates to a 31 percent increase in the county's portion of the property tax.

Wiese admitted that the property tax system is very complex and it would nearly impossible to predict just how much of an increase taxpayers might see on their individual properties, but he felt that it would be roughly a 15 percent increase.

Wiese also reported that county department heads were told start considering cuts in hours and job cuts.

"Which is more important, providing services to county residents or providing a jail?"

Wiese admitted that there will be some possible negative consequences if the project is delayed, including increased building costs and possibly an increase in the interest rates on the jail bonds.

"It may cost us to wait, but that would be our mistake," he said. "If they go ahead now, it will be three people against the rest of us. I know they want to do what's right, but I don't think this is right."

Wiese said that he knows that some of the county employees are very concerned about security at the courthouse, but suggested that the "sheriff's office could add more staff on days when court was in session."

John Stephens said that in hindsight, a regional facility was the best idea.

"My heart goes out to these guys who poured themselves into that and finally decided to just take the bull by the horns," Stephens said. "But the economic situation has changed drastically since then."

Stephens said that there is a disconnect between the doers and the payers and he thinks having a citizens committee is the best idea, "so we could all be on the same page together."

As part of the meeting, a letter from State Rep. Torrey Westrom and State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen was read. The letter noted that the lawmakers have received numerous inquiries about the proposed Stevens County jail. The legislators asked the board to "reconsider the bond issuance or at least postpone it until economic conditions improve."

Westsrom and Ingebrigtsen offered to introduce legislation to provide a "pragmatic alternative," to offer county officials more flexibility to contract out their jail population.

When the floor was opened for questions, County Attorney Charlie Glasrud reported that a couple of the commissioners came prepared with information about the costs and asked the panel if they thought it would be fair to allow them to speak. The panel declined. They replied that the commissioners have had their opportunity to answer questions. They would, however, allow the commissioners as taxpayers to ask questions. None of the commissioners spoke.

Lesmeister then asked for a motion to support a resolution asking the county board to "form a citizens committee to represent the concerned Tax Payers of Stevens County to assist the County Board with the Courthouse-Law Enforcement Center and Jail Project."

Berg made the motion, with Stephens offering a second. When Lesmeister called for a vote, there was nearly unanimous support, with two or three audible "nays."

The commissioners have scheduled a vote on issuing the jail bonds during their Tuesday, Feb. 17 meeting.