Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, July 10, 2000

Wright board to discuss multi-million dollar jail proposals

By John Holler

In Wright County, the decade of the 1990s was remembered as one in which the county incurred millions in long-term debt over big-ticket projects, including the construction of an annex to the county courthouse, a new county jail and the maligned county compost facility.

At the time, it was hoped that the days of expensive construction projects would be over for years to come. However, that thinking was tragically flawed.

Less than a decade after the courthouse and jail construction, the county already ran out of available space in the courthouse, which forced the county to move the human services department to another building in Buffalo. Now, it's become clear that the timeline given for the county jail was severely underestimated.

"The jail was supposed to meet the needs of the county through the year 2010 or beyond," Commissioner Ken Jude said. "But, we're finding out the hard way that those numbers were grossly underestimated and that the growth of the county has left us in a position we were in before the jail was built."

That position is one in which the county is forced to pay thousands of dollars a week to board prisoners outside of Wright County because there are no available beds in the county jail.

One estimate has the county being forced to pay as much as $200,000 this year alone to board prisoners out of county and it's a problem that is only going to get worse.

"The biggest problem we have right now is that boarding prisoners has a double cost," Sheriff Gary Miller said. "It's a gorilla that we have to deal with. Not only do we have to spend money to keep prisoners somewhere else, but we have to send an officer with the prisoner to transport them back and forth. We have to pay the officer and it's one less person who is working in the county. Somebody else has to pick up that slack, so it's a problem that has more than one effect."

According to a study done for the county, by the year 2025, the county is going to need 109 minimum security work release beds and 194 medium-maximum security beds. At present, the county has just 39 minimum security beds and 54 medium-maximum security beds - a projected shortfall of 210 beds.

The purpose of the study was to explore the options available and give cost projections. It came up with five proposals, ranging in price from $16 million to almost $40 million. However, two of the options likely will be rejected out of hand.

The first option is to do nothing and board prisoners elsewhere. Estimates were as high as $38.7 million being spent by 2025 using the current prisoner per diem rate of $65 a day - a price that will undoubtedly go up in the future and could drive that number up to approximately $45 million.

The second option likely to be rejected is a simple remodeling, which would still leave the county 150 beds short of their needs, resulting a millions again being spent on board prisoners. This option has an estimated cost of $33 million.

"Those two options probably won't be options we'll look at," Miller said. "They don't really do much of anything and they're the most expensive options we have. Neither of them sounds really good. It will probably come down to the other three options."

Those options include an on-site justice proposal which would close off First Avenue N.E. in Buffalo and add 200 beds (cost estimate: $16 million), construct a jail annex (cost estimate: $17 million) and construct a new 304-bed jail facility away from the courthouse (cost estimate: $19 million).

Each proposal has its own set of pros and cons and the county board will have to determine which proposal is the best for the needs of the county and the ability of taxpayers to pick up the bill.

"It's going to be discussed, but, from what I've seen, the only option that really makes sense is to build a new jail," Commissioner Jack Russek said. "When the previous county board decided to build the addition on to the courthouse and jail, they knew they were boxing the county in by building on the same site.

"There just isn't enough room to make any huge additions here without wiping out an entire block next to the courthouse. We've bought up a lot of property around the courthouse in recent years, but not to use as the site of a new jail."

The board set a July 12 committee of the whole meeting to discuss the matter. At that time, Jail Administrator Gary Torfin is going to present more detailed cost estimates for how much the county can expect to lose in the coming months and years boarding prisoners and it is expected that those figures will be the push needed to get the board moving on getting something done.

"We're already in a position where we losing money," Jude said. "Even if we get started on it at (the July 12) meeting, it's probably still going to be two or three years until we can get a new jail open. With mandates and population growth, we have more prisoners than we ever have and those numbers aren't going to go down. The longer we wait, the bigger problem we're going to have."

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