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County postpones building project bond sale

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The sale of jail bonds for a county building project will be delayed three months, and an advisory committee of residents will be formed to review the project.

The Stevens County Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 to approve delaying Tuesday's bid opening for the sale of about $9.85 million in General Obligation Jail Bonds to finance the jail portion of the $15 million project.

The building project was approved by the commissioners in July 2008, but a group of opposition taxpayers formed in November, primarily to protest the need and cost of the jail portion and ask the board to delay the project.

The project includes construction of a 20-cell, 40-bed jail, a law enforcement center and renovations of the existing courthouse.

The advisory committee will consist of three members of the Stevens County Taxpayers Committee and three at-large citizen members who will be selected by the board.

The taxpayers committee is meeting to determine which members will serve, and the board is expected to choose the at-large members as soon as possible.

No timetable for meetings has been determined.

The resolution passed states that the advisory panel will be convened "with the mission to meet, share information, address the public's questions about the Project, more fully evaluate concerns and objections to the Project), and submit a report not later than May 15, 2009."

The county board previously wanted to begin construction on the project this spring.

The taxpayers group appeared before the board several times in the last three months, and the committee organized a meeting last week that drew more than 500 people. Among other things, they are concerned that the method of financing places a greater tax burden on owners of agricultural land and that the board's jail plan is too large and too expensive for the county's needs.

The group sought a 12-month delay but the board voted it down on a 3-2 vote, with the commissioners who approved the project -- Don Munsterman, Larry Sayre and Paul Watzke -- denying that proposal.

The taxpayers group pushed the issue last week by announcing it might seek to have Munsterman recalled, and also might seek an injunction to stop the bid opening.

Brian Patrick Farrell, a Maple Grove attorney representing the taxpayers committee, said his clients view the board's plan as an "unwise and hasty spending and bonding bill," and that the advisory committee formation, at least for now, made it unnecessary for him to seek an injunction to try and stop the process.

The 12-month delay would have been preferable, giving citizens more time to review the plan and see what happens with the economy, he said.

"Nonetheless, 90 days in better than today," Farrell said. "Our hope is that this will get things moving in the right direction."

There is a concern that the board's at-large citizen selections will be motivated by politics, especially since almost all votes with regard to the project have been 3-2 decisions, Farrell said.

"We hope we can get away from politicizing the process," Farrell said. "We hope they will set aside partisanship."