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Commissioners vote to get bids on jail project

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Stevens County will advertise for bids on its $15 million building and renovation plan, despite cautionary and sometimes angry responses from opponents to the jail portion of the project.

The county's Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to seek bids for the project at a Tuesday morning meeting that was continued from last week.

Commissioners Don Munsterman, Larry Sayre and Paul Watzke voted for the motion to seek bids. Commissioners Herb Kloos and Ron Staples voted against.

Later, Staples and Kloos expressed their frustration that an option that didn't include construction of a jail wasn't given more consideration. Audience members also voiced their opposition to moving ahead on the current plan, saying that operational costs, especially, would put the county in financial peril for the next two decades.

The vote came after the 11-member advisory panel the board formed in March completed its 10-week review of the project on Monday.

At the time the Stevens County Citizens/County Board Facilities Project Advisory Committee was formed, the commissioners also voted to postpone calling for bids.

While the committee's work progressed, the county board also voted to have its architect, Klein McCarthy Architects, and project manager, Contegrity Group, develop two preliminary optional plans, both of which did not include building a jail.

Commissioners Don Munsterman, Larry Sayre and Paul Watzke on Tuesday voted to call for bids. They have cited favorable bids -- some 20 percent under estimates -- that were received for projects in other counties as the impetus for the decision.

Sayre said the county wouldn't save enough money by taking the jail portion out of the project under current planning, and he agreed with Munsterman and Watzke that seeing the bids would help determine if the project is viable.

"I'd like to get it nailed down," Sayre said.

Munsterman said the county could reject the bids if they were unsatisfactory.

"Let's see what we've got for our money," Munsterman said.

But Commissioners Herb Kloos and Ron Staples said they wanted more serious consideration given to an option that calls for courthouse renovations, construction of the LEC, a sally port and holding rooms, but no jail.

Staples said there was no point in discussing the option if Munsterman, Sayre and Watzke were set on calling for bids. Kloos agreed and said bidding would essentially lock the county into the $15 million project.

"If you do that (call for bids), I think the ball game is over because I don't think we'll be going back to (any options)," Kloos said.

The option without the jail could be pared down and the total costs capped at about $9 million, he said.

"I don't think we should throw (the option) away yet," Kloos said.

County Coordinator Jim Thoreen said that, based on his discussions with a project architect, June 16 would be the earliest the board could review bids on the more than 30 bid packages for the project, which calls for a renovation of the courthouse and construction of a 20-cell jail and a new law enforcement center.

Under the plan, the renovation would also free up enough space to move the county's Human Services department back from its current location near Highway 28, and that Stevens Traverse Grant Public Health would be moved to the current Human Services location. The public health building on Pacific Avenue then would be put up for sale.

Thoreen also reminded the commissioners that architects and Contegrity warned that calling for bids and then rejecting them could be "problematic" and aggravate contractors.

At Monday's final meeting of the advisory panel, members presented statements about their work and the consensus appeared to support the courthouse renovations and construction of a law enforcement center, a sally port for prisoners and holding rooms.

At Tuesday's meeting, Staples chided the three commissioners supporting the bid call, saying that they were ignoring the work of the advisory panel.

"All that time and effort has fallen on deaf ears," Staples said.

Audience members, including those with the Stevens County Taxpayers Committee, which opposes the jail component, said the cost of building and running the jail are too high for a county that is losing population at a time when inmate populations in other counties is falling.

Not taking a longer look at options will put the entire project -- including the courthouse renovations -- in jeopardy, said taxpayers committee member John Stephens.

"I don't think your constituents will rest," Stephens said. "I don't think they will look the other way and let this slide. I think they will try to stop this project in its entirety."

Committee member Charlie Berg said that, according to his cost estimates, the costs of operating a jail will severely stress county taxpayers at a time when the economy is reeling.

"It's the wrong time to do it and (the costs are) way too high," Berg said.

Jeanne Ennen, an advisory panel member, said she couldn't understand why the county would be publicly seeking to reduce costs in other areas while contemplating adding employees to operate a jail.

Craig Loge said the tax increases needed to operate a jail under the current building plan might potentially cripple the agriculture industry, could push farmers out of the business, and saddle younger farmers with debt for years.

"Even if you were given the jail, it doesn't come out," Loge said.

Lanny Rohloff concurred and said the affect of moving ahead with a plan that includes a jail could be damaging.

"You're playing with fire," Rohloff said to the commissioners. "This is traumatic, what you are doing to our county and city."