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Douglas County board divided over LEC timeline: Some want to proceed; others want to wait

The issue of whether or not to join the city of Alexandria in building a new joint law enforcement center (LEC) led to a heated discussion among all five Douglas County commissioners at Tuesday's regular meeting.

Commissioner Paul Anderson started the discussion by saying that he didn't know of another project or committee that he has spent so much time on.

He believes the county should move forward on the project and build a new LEC with the city.

Anderson began listing reasons why the current LEC shouldn't be used, including windows that date back to the 1930s, a sprinkler system that needs updating, a phone system he feels is archaic and having to add an elevator, among others.

He also feels there would be increased costs if the county waited.

"If we wait, the cost of construction will be a major factor," he told the other commissioners, along with a roomful of spectators, including four members of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

Anderson also raised space issues, security issues, questions about being in violation for evidence storage and what it would mean for the public to have two different locations for law enforcement.

(The city plans to move its police department by itself if the county doesn't move forward on a joint LEC.)

"It will not be convenient for the public to have us here and them somewhere else," he said. "That would be taking a step back in time."

After Anderson was done speaking to the commissioners, he said, "I move that we move along with the city in the construction of a new LEC."

Commissioner Dan Olson immediately seconded the motion.

No vote was taken at the time because of the discussion that ensued.

Commissioner Jerry Johnson noted that if the city moved out of its current location and went on its own, the only money the county would lose is the rent the city pays the county, which equals about $20,000 per year, he said.

Johnson talked about all the expenses the county would have if it approved building a new LEC, including the cost of operating the dispatch, the actual cost of building a new facility and cost to get rid of the current facility.

He said Douglas County taxpayers are already carrying enough burden, and that in the current economic times, there have been layoffs, along with a declining level of real estate.

"That should send a caution signal," he stressed. "We should be a little more careful."

Anderson interrupted Johnson and said he was tired of saving $2 here and $2 there.

"We can't add onto the place," he said of the current facility. "It will cost us more to build if we wait. We have to think out 30-40 years. We need to think about more than just tomorrow."

After a brief exchange with Anderson and Olson, Johnson said, "I don't know why the numbers came in high [to build a new facility]. It's a high price to pay. We shouldn't just jump in there. I don't think we should do this."

Commissioner Norm Salto jumped into the discussion and countered what Anderson said about the windows at the current LEC. Salto believed that the windows had actually been replaced about 25 years ago.

"The windows have been changed. They are not the same as when I went to school here," he noted.

He shared his feelings about the possible new joint LEC and said right now, he couldn't vote for it.

"I cannot at this time. We are asking taxpayers to do this. I can't do it. With the amount of people who are laid off, they are trying to figure out how to survive and then we turn around and raise their taxes. I can't do it," he said.

Board chair Bev Bales echoed Salto's sentiments, adding, "I can't be putting it on taxpayers when we are asking for cuts. We are strapped."

Bales continued by stating that next year, after the new jail opens and inmates are moved from the current LEC to the jail, the upper floor of the LEC will be open.

"It would take some remodeling, but we're not talking $12 million," she said. "I cannot go for this."

Olson countered what Bales said and told her that the county doesn't have to pay $12 million; its share of the new LEC is roughly $6 million.

He told Bales that in his estimation, instead of sticking $3 million into remodeling the current facility, it would be wiser to spend a little more to build a new facility.

"I have a problem with this. In my common sense, it makes more sense to do a new building," said Olson.

After a little more debate, Bales said there were people in the audience that wanted to speak.

Bruce Campbell, a concerned citizen, spoke up and told the commissioners that he was against the project.

"Think about the taxpayers," he told the commissioners. "A vote for this is a vote to raise taxes."

He also told commissioners that he and his wife are on Social Security and then asked them, "How long do you think that will last?"

Another person in the audience, Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen, spoke up and told the commissioners that before they voted on the issue, they should have more discussions with the city.

"This is not the right time to vote on this," he said. "There needs to be more discussions. You need to talk to the city."

Commissioner Johnson told Wolbersen that if the county voted against the project, the city has the option of backing out. He added that the city has been leading this project from the get-go.

"The city can come back and ask us to reconsider," he said.

Commissioner Anderson, who made the motion to move forward with the project, said he wanted to amend his motion.

After several minutes of trying to figure out what the motion should be and further debate on the issue, Commissioner Anderson rescinded his motion altogether.

Commissioner Olson then made a motion to continue discussions with the city of Alexandria regarding the second phase of the proposed joint LEC project, including the consideration of a time frame more financially feasible for the county.

Olson, Anderson and Salto voted yes, while Bales and Johnson voted no.

The motion passed.

The next county board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, September 22 at 9 a.m.