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From the Echo Press: Economy, jail plans leave Douglas County officials nervous

By Mike Enright

Alexandria Echo Press

Douglas County took a shaky step forward this week in its long path toward a new jail, as mounting worries over the deepening recession threaten to derail the project.

In what was expected to be a routine measure, county commissioners on Tuesday voted 3-2 to join the state's Credit Enhancement Program in preparation of selling $16.7 million in bonds for the county's proposed new jail, set to be built at the current county public works site.

Commissioners Bev Bales and Norm Salto voted against the measure, while Paul Anderson, Gerald Johnson and Dan Olson supported it.

Sponsored by the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority, the Credit Enhancement Program allows counties to take advantage of the state's credit rating to secure lower interest rates on bonds sold for public projects mandated by the state Legislature, such as an up-to-code jail facility.

Expressing concern over the new jail's estimated cost, Salto said Tuesday he didn't know if local taxpayers can afford another big construction project, given the recent sharp economic downturn.

"We're struggling with what we've got to pay for right now," Salto said. "Personally, if I didn't have enough money to run the place right now, why would I borrow another $16.7 million?"

Before Tuesday's vote, county officials had said they planned to receive construction bids on the proposed 56,000 square-foot, two-story building, and to sell bonds to pay for it, at their next regularly scheduled meeting on March 10.

Construction has been slated to start as soon as the public works department has moved into its new facility near the Douglas County Fairgrounds, currently anticipated for late April or early May.

The county has to do something. The current downtown jail is obsolete, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC), and will be shut down next August unless serious modifications are made to bring it up to code, or the county has made "substantial" progress on a replacement facility.

Salto said he still supports building a new jail, just not right now, with so many people struggling to pay their bills and others losing their jobs.

"The state has no money, the federal government has no money ... you would think the Department of Corrections would say, 'We can't do this to these counties right now,' " he said. "We could get ourselves in order here if they would just let us stay open for another year."

Currently, DOC has not given any indication it plans to extend Douglas County's August deadline.

Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen said nobody wants to spend money on a new jail right now, but the county doesn't have any other viable options.

DOC is going to close the current facility's doors next August, unless construction of a replacement is under way, he said. If the county doesn't have any jail it will have to transport every person arrested to jails in neighboring counties at "substantial expense."

The sheriff's office estimates it would cost the county between $2.5 million and $3 million a year to transport prisoners elsewhere, and that's if other facilities have enough space.

"Without a jail facility, logistically it would be difficult for us because of the number of transports," Wolbersen said. "On a busy weekend we bring in 15 to 20 new arrests."

Commissioner Paul Anderson said Douglas County needs a new jail, and the county board has been working too long and invested too much to put off this project any longer.

"I don't think we can afford to flush this," Anderson said. "I feel it would hurt us more, financially, not to do this."

Douglas County Auditor/Treasurer Tom Reddick said he understands some commissioners' concerns about the cost of the proposed jail.

It is a big project, Reddick said, especially given the poor economic climate.

The flip side, he said, is that the county will pay far less in the long-term by building now.

Many contractors are hungry for work, Reddick said, which means more competitive bids. And with the market the way it is, interest rates on bonds are lower than they have been in years, he said.

"It is the best time to build it," Reddick said. "It's the worst time to pay for it."