By Derrick Knutson—
The Chisago County Jail in Center City has been a hot-button issue for residents and county commissioners for about the past six years. Discussion about the jail and its near-defunct state was brought to the county board again at its Dec. 28 meeting.
On the docket was an amendment to a professional agreement with an architectural firm, which was hired by the county to draft a schematic for an $18 million, 38,000-square-foot addition to the existing Emergency Communications Center.
The board approved the initial agreement with Klein McCarthy & Co. Ltd. about a month ago, but needed to update the document during the meeting to have it finalized.
After pulling the item off the consent agenda for discussion, the board voted 3-2 to approve the agreement, which pays the architectural firm $82,176 plus reimbursable expenses to create the blueprint.
Commissioners Ben Montzka, Rick Greene and George McMahon voted in favor of the agreement.
Commissioners Lora Walker and Mike Robinson cast dissenting votes.
Chisago County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Chad Worden said when jail discussions surfaced around 2005, the idea at that time was to build a new, multi-million dollar jail on land the county purchased on the north side of Highway 8 in Center City, near the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center.
Chisago County Sheriff Rick Duncan said the initial cost of the project was about $42 million, but was eventually pared down to $32 million.
That project proposal fell by the wayside because of the cost the county would have incurred to build the facility, but the county is still on the hook to do something about its ageing jail because of a state mandate.
Worden said the Minnesota Department of Corrections wants a commitment by the county to update the jail because it’s deficient in numerous areas.
He explained the state told Chisago County there is not enough room in the jail for programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, adult basic education and various other support groups. He noted there is also not enough recreational space for inmates.
Currently, Worden said there isn’t a distinct plan about how to come up with the $18 million it would cost to make the proposed upgrade.
If the county doesn’t build more jail space, Worden said, the jail could be transformed into a 90-day holding facility, which could have financial implications for the Sheriff’s Office.
“We’d have to house inmates outside of the county (in other jail facilities),” Worden said. “It’s like renting a hotel room. Basically, we’re forced to pay other counties to house them.”
Worden added the county would also incur costs to transport the inmates to other facilities and bring them back to Center City for their court dates.
District 4 commissioner Ben Montzka, however, said making the jail into a 90-day holding facility could actually be a cost saver, with the expense of relocating and transporting inmates coming in below what it costs to house them for up to a year in Center City.
Montzka mentioned the demographics of the county are changing, and there’s more older residents in the county than in years past. He said those older residents are less likely to commit the types of crimes that land them in the county jail, and that statistic is reflected in declining inmate populations.
Duncan was not of the same opinion as Montzka in terms of transporting inmates to other counties being a cost savings.
“Going to the 90-day facility really isn’t going to save us any dollars because we’re still going to have the same amount of people to watch the inmates, and the cost to transport people out of counties and the cost to pay those counties rent for people to stay in those jails,” he said.
Duncan added the proposed $18 million project cost could be cut even further as the county moves along with next steps in the process.
Montzka supported the resolution to have the schematic drafted, but said he did so mainly as a measure to stay in-line with the state mandate for the time being.
At some point, Montza said, it might be apt to “call the state’s bluff” and see if it would order the county to change the jail to a 90-day facility.
District 5 commissioner Mike Robinson said there isn’t a timetable for any construction on the jail.
He explained his dissenting vote by saying debates about the jail has been fodder for political misinformation during campaign season, and he didn’t want to rehash old arguments.
He also mentioned that he wanted the other commissioners to have a specific plan in place to address the needs of the jail if the board does not move forward with the expansion.
Robinson did agree with the assessment of the jail’s condition, and acknowledged there needs to be a plan in place to address future upgrades to the building.
“Something has to happen,” he said. “The jail is just about shot.”