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County advisory panel completes work

By Philip Drown

The Stevens County Building Project Study Committee met for the final time last Monday, concluding ten weeks of intensive meetings to exchange information and discuss issues surrounding the proposed $15 million courthouse remodel and jail project.

After responding to a series of questions submitted in writing by members of the public, the committee engaged in discussion regarding the nature of a final report. The intent of the report will be to bring the process to a close and serve as both a public information resource and historical documentation of the committee's work. The resolution adopted by the County Board in February of 2009 to form the committee stipulated that a final report would be submitted at the end of the process.

After some discussion, the committee determined that a final report would be released to the public with the following components: (1) A brief preface to establish the background and context for the committee. The preface will include the February resolution adopted by the County Board, (2) A summary of the process and activities of the committee, (3) the complete notes compiled over all ten weeks of meetings which documented in detail the discussions and information exchanged, and (3) a conclusion section, which will document the final thoughts and conclusions of the individual members of the committee.

Afterward, members of the committee presented their final conclusion statements. Everyone expressed thanks and appreciation to the other members of the committee for their commitment and time spent reviewing the project, and also thanked the public for their interest, patience, and attention, throughout the process.

Jerry Lesmeister read a prepared statement that summarized the conclusions of himself, LuAlan Rohloff, and Jack Lampert, all of whom served on the committee as representatives of the Stevens County Taxpayers Group. Among other comments, they recommended against building a jail and suggested hiring a "County Project Liaison", a local person with knowledge of building construction, who would work for the county and architects as an advisor.

Lesmeister also read from a statement by Neal Hofland, who expressed concern over the size and scope of the project and questioned the rationale behind the decision to build a jail. "My main concern has been, what issues are we solving at this cost and how much will it benefit Stevens County?" Hofland's statement said. Hofland also took responsibility for not following through with public meetings to get information out and seek public input in 2008 during his tenure s Chair of the County Board.

Sheldon Giese, serving on the committee as a "citizen-at-large", supported the project as currently proposed. "There are lesser options that leave too many things unanswered," Giese said. "With no jail, we will still need to transport prisoners. With no LEC, we can't move Public Health and Human Services." Giese also expressed concern that information distributed by the Stevens County Taxpayer's group was "not based on fact, but on hearsay or opinion" and presented a negative picture of Stevens County to the rest of the world.

Commissioner Larry Sayre indicated that the Board would be reviewing all three options at the May 12 Board meeting. Sayre said his personal opinion was that option #5 was not a good option and would not address the needs of the future and was "not a fiscally responsible route to pursue."

Jeanne Ennen, serving as a "citizen-at-large", expressed strong concern that this project as currently proposed was not the fiscally responsible route to pursue. Ennen cited jails throughout the state that are operating in deficits and suggested that people in Minnesota "both personally and in their businesses are tightening belts and trying to conserve,". Ennen expressed hope that Stevens County would do the same.

Commissioner Paul Watzke reaffirmed his position that "the wisest financial decision for Stevens County is to do the project as it is right now." Watzke said, "I am looking at it not over the next twenty years, but forty years."

Commisioner Don Munsterman said that the Board will review all three options at the May 12 meeting. Munsterman said he will "take everything that has been said here home tonight and read it. I am going to look to the future and hopefully make the decision that is best for the whole community." Munsterman also referenced a commentary he submitted as the remainder o his concluding statement. That commentary was published in the Saturday, May 9 edition of the Morris Sun Tribune.

Commissioner Ron Staples said, "I do think we should move forward with remodeling of the courthouse to take care of the safety concerns for the Courts area and make it more energy efficient." But, Staples also recommended "going back to the drawing board". Staples suggested that, "instead of adding onto the backside of the courthouse we should look at the front side."

"As long as the street is going to be closed off it would make sense to add the extra space to the front two stories high. This way we would not have to excavate the back side for parking, add a 7 foot retaining wall and we wouldn't have basement office space," Staples said.

Philip Drown is a professional writer and consultant who served as the recorder for the citizens/county board advisory committee.