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UPDATE: Commissioners vote to halt jail project

The City of Morris Planning Commission will review Stevens County's request for variances and a street vacation for its proposed $15 million building and renovation project.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The Stevens County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to pursue a building and renovation project that does not include immediate construction of a 20-cell jail.

The controversial project now will include a substantial remodeling of the 53-year-old courthouse and construction of a new law enforcement center. The jail was the cause of uproar in the community, especially in the last six months.

Two commissioners who originally approved of including the jail in the project, stated that personal attacks and "borderline criminal threats" played a role in their decision to drop the jail portion of the project.

Commissioners Don Munsterman and Larry Sayre read statements that were critical of opponents' actions in pushing to keep the jail portion out of the project.

But a member of the Stevens County Taxpayers Committee, Jerry Lesmeister, said many problems could have been avoided if the three commissioners who voted for the jail would have been more accomodating of other ideas and listened to people who disagreed with them. Lesmeister also was a member of the panel that spent 10 weeks reviewing the project this spring.

In the end, the board and county staffers stated that a unanimous decision to move ahead with the jail-less option was vital to unifying a fractured board and, as Munsterman said, to "begin the healing of our community."

The board last month approved advertising for bids on the project and voted to sell jail bonds to finance portions of the project. The bids were expected to be opened June 11, reviewed by project manager Contegrity Group, then presented to the board at its June 16 meeting.

The original option with the jail was estimated to cost just less than $15 million, and supporters were confident that the current economic climate would have produced bids and bond interest rates below estimates.

Douglas County recently approved a $15 million jail project than came in almost $3 million under estimate.

The option now approved is roughly estimated to cost $11.5 million and includes construction of a sally port and holding rooms next to courtrooms, but operational costs for the jail no longer apply.

Opponents argued that dropping the jail from the original plan should result in lower costs, but architects stated that all three components of the project were integrated and special construction concerns had to be addressed to allow for the addition of a jail in the future if its needed.

Board chairman Larry Sayre called for Tuesday's special meeting to "consider changing the scope" of the project. The board and staff spent time debating how to proceed so the county did not alienate contractors which had put considerable time, effort and money into bidding on the project that included a jail, and what to do about altering the process to get bids for the jail-less option. The building plan would allow for a jail to be added in the future.

County Coordinator Jim Thoreen said Contegrity had sent out about 120 design and specification packages for the 33 bid packages included in the original project. County Facilities Coordinator Dave Schmidt said Tuesday that more than 50 site visits had been made to the courthouse by contractors and representatives possibly interested in bidding on the work.

The plan now is to return the bids to the contractors with an addendum from the project architect, Klein McCarthy Architects, stating that the county would now be pursuing a different option. The hope is the contractors would be able to revise their bidding packages to remove the jail portion, and would not be angered or frustrated by the late decision after original bids were put together.

"I think that leaves us in the best position with all potential bidders," said Commissioner Paul Watzke, who recommended the move after consulting with Contegrity project manager Larry Filippi.

The resolution the board passed Tuesday cancelled the sale of about $9.8 million of General Obligation Jail Bonds -- which can only be used for jail construction -- and left open the possibility of alternative financing options. Housing Redevelopment Authority Director Nora Jost said financing the project through the HRA might be a possibility.

The resolution also instructs KMA and Contegrity to proceed with construction documents for the new option.

The original project was approved last summer and a cap of $15 million instituted. Construction was slated to begin this spring.

But late last year, opposition to the project surfaced, with public meetings drawing large crowds.

Earlier this year, the commissioner postponed additional action on the project and an 11-member panel comprised of the county board, members of the Stevens County Taxpayers Committee and at-large citizen selections was formed to review the project. The panel met over 10 weeks and made oral and written responses, the consensus being that a courthouse renovation and LEC construction was needed but that a jail would be too costly to build and operate.

The day after the panel completed its work, the board voted 3-2 to seek bids, and soon after voted again 3-2 to proceed with the sale of jail bonds.

That action angered Commissioner Ron Staples, who accused the board's majority of giving other options short shrift.

Staples reiterated his frustration with that decision, saying the option "didn't get the time of day."

"I was willing to go along with (the option without the jail) then," he said Tuesday. "I don't know if I'm willing to go ahead (with the option) today because of that."

Staples, however, did vote in step with the other four commissioners on the new option Tuesday.

Commissioner Herb Kloos also said he felt "bad about that" when the jail-less option wasn't discussed more last month. He said he doesn't believe any building option will be acceptable to all county residents, but that something needs to be done.

"We've got to heal this community and settle this," he said.

Munsterman and Sayre issued statements explaining their decisions to move away from the original plan and pursue the jail-less option.

Sayre said he still believes the original option was the best long-range and most fiscally responsible plan, but noted that pursuing that plan "is not worth it."

"The negative things that have risen in recent weeks include many personal verbal (and) written attacks on individual county commissioners and their families, intimidation, and the harassment of family members are very troubling to me," Sayre stated.

Munsterman said the taxpayers committee and other opponents of the jail portion "created a split in our community. I feel that the information they circulated to the public was incorrect and the personal attacks, accusations and name calling were inappropriate to say the least."

Munsterman said the activity "fractured" the community, and that the rifts were evident in churches, civic groups, businesses and friendships "and at times hurting innocent individuals with border line criminal threats. The split in the community must be healed."

Supporting the optional plan could begin that process, and "(t)he taxpayers group must also take part in this healing of our community," Munsterman stated.

Lesmeister said threats and other unacceptable behavior were not condoned by the taxpayers committee. However, the board members created some of their own problems by moving ahead with the original plan immediately after the panel completed its work, leaving the impression they didn't care about the panel's decisions and opinions.

"Part of it was that we wanted compromise when we started this whole process," Lesmeister said. "When they made their decision three weeks ago, it created more problems. They could have eliminated a lot of that by voting for (the option without a jail) back then, but they chose not to do that."

The taxpayers committee, overall, will be satisfied with the board's decision on Tuesday, although there are still concerns the project costs are too high by making the building jail-ready, Lesmeister said, adding that it's not likely a jail will be built soon, if ever.

But opponents most likely will "be content with that (option)," and that the entire process brought up lessons.

"You need to listen to people, is what it comes down to," Lesmeister said.