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Advisory panel, county officials tour Renville County's jail

Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee member Jack Lampert (left) listens to Renville County Sheriff Jerry Agre and Jail Administrator Elaine Johnson during a tour of Renville County's jail on Monday.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The committee reviewing Stevens County's building project got a good look at what the jail portion might look like but didn't come away with hard numbers on what it might cost to operate it.

The Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee took a three-hour tour of Renville County's jail on Monday and met with Sheriff Jerry Agre and Jail Administrator Elaine Johnson.

Renville County's jail is about three times larger than the one planned for Stevens County, but it was planned and designed by the same architects and project managers, Klein McCarthy Architects and Contegrity, that are putting together Stevens County's project.

The committee, which is in the midst of a 90-day review of the building project, will meet with representatives from Klein McCarthy and Contegrity at its March 30 meeting.

The county in July 2008 approved a $15 million plan for construction of a jail and law enforcement center and renovations of the current courthouse.

But the county board earlier this year delayed the sale of bonds for the jail portion of the project after opposition surfaced. The advisory committee was formed to review the project and submit a report by May 15. If the project moves ahead, construction is set to begin this spring.

County board members toured Renville County's jail last year, just as construction was being completed for its September 2008 opening.

The jail planning was about five years in the making, Agre said, and many of the reasons for its construction mirror those of Stevens County.

While Renville County had a jail, it was too small to handle the county's average daily prisoner population and sheriff's deputies were on the road a lot transporting them for boarding in other county jails, which was costing the county about $240,000 a year.

Agre and Johnson warned the advisory panel about building a jail too small. Renville County had 72-hour holding cells built in 1992. The county quickly outgrew that facility, and embarked on plans for the current 72-bed in 2003.

"It was better than nothing," Johnson said of the 72-hour holding cells. "But once (prisoners) are in court, they have to go someplace else."

The average prisoner will have to be transported, round trip, four times before they are serving their sentence, Agre said.

"We were on the road a lot," he said.

Renville County has a population of about 17,000 people and takes in prisoners primarily from Yellow Medicine County, which has a population of about 11,000, and Redwood County, which has about 17,000 residents.

The Renville County jail has an Average Daily Population of about 18 prisoners. On Monday, Agre said the jail had 23 prisoners, five of which came from other counties.

The jail is renting out space for prisoners from Redwood, McLeod and Sibley counties, and also contracts with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house federal prisoners who are completing the final weeks of their sentences. Renville County doesn't have contracts with other counties, preferring instead to work on "gentlemen's agreements," Agre said.

Given the populations of the counties and the ADP, Johnson said Renville County currently doesn't need 72 beds, and she often fields calls from people asking if the jail is full, and if not, why not, she said.

"We don't need 72 beds," Johnson said. "But you don't build a jail for today but maybe what you'll need 25 years down the road."

Agre agreed, saying that taxpayers don't like paying for jails in any case, and they wouldn't be happy if the county built too small and had to expand an existing facility or build a new one after just a few years.

A 72-bed jail in operation 24-hours a day, 365 days a year, requires 10 full-time staffers and four part-time jailers, not including dispatchers: Johnson, a program director also works as a jailer and dispatcher. Five people are needed to staff the jail during daytime hours, and three people are on duty the rest of the time. The part-time staffers fill in when needed. The jailers work in two-person teams, usually consisting of male and female jailers. Male jailers can only have limited contact with female prisoners, Johnson said.

The county has an historic courthouse building nearby, but didn't want to add on to the building, so prisoners must be transported from the jail by car to appear in court, Johnson said.

Since the jail is less than a year old, the county is still getting a grasp on operating costs for the facility. The county added to its existing bonded indebtedness for almost $7 million to build the jail and renovate space for its human services and public health departments.

Preliminary estimates showed that it would cost about $617,000 a year to operate the facility, but the county was aware some expenses were not included in that estimate. Agre put operations costs at about $940,000 per year, with salaries and wages accounting for almost $421,000. Stevens County's plan calls for about half the staffing Renville requires: for a 20-cell, 40-bed jail, Stevens County would need two people on duty -- a jailer and dispatcher -- at all times. To fill that schedule, Stevens County would need five full-time and two part-time jailers, along with a jail administrator.

The advisory panel also met with Renville County Auditor-Treasurer Larry Jacobs, who said he would have to meet with other county finance workers to compile specific details about the jail that were requested by committee members.