Chisago seeking money from state for jail construction

When discussion of constructing a new jail in Center City started more than eight years ago, the proposed cost was around $42 million.

Since that time, that estimated figure has been pared down significantly — by about half — and now Chisago County is looking to reduce the amount even further.

At the Nov. 20 Chisago County Board of Commissioners meeting, the board voted 3-1 — Commissioner Ben Montzka was absent for the vote and Commissioner Lora Walker cast the dissenting vote — to ask the state for funding as part of its next bonding bill.

County Administrator Bruce Messelt said the county could stand a chance of getting some money in the bonding bill because of the county’s unique financial situation.

He noted the county does not have a large commercial-industrial base from which to draw property taxes, so paying for a multimillion-dollar jail facility would be difficult; the county would have to issue additional debt to fund the construction.

“Practically speaking, we don’t want to issue more debt,” Messelt said. “The board wanted to see if there were more options, so it asked the state Legislature for a 50-50 bonding match.”

The county is subject to a state mandate to do something about its ailing jail facility, which either means fixing the current one off Main Street in Center City, or building a new one on land the county has purchased adjacent to the county Emergency Communication Center near Pleasant Valley Road and Highway 8.

The jail, built in 1978, is deficient in numerous areas. Chisago County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Brandon Thyen addressed many of those deficiencies during a tour of the facility last winter.

He noted:

• The jail’s programming and recreation areas are insufficient.

• Jail staff are packed into closet-sized offices.

• Some inmates are funneled into dormitory-style cells with numerous bunks.

•The library and visiting room sometimes have to be used as temporary cells because the jail doesn’t have enough 24-hour holding areas and one cell on an outer-ring wall of the building can’t be used when its cold outside because the jail’s heating system doesn’t work well enough to keep it sufficiently warm.

• There’s not enough space for volunteers that come into the jail and for support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

The layout of the jail can lead to dangerous situations for staff.

Chisago County will be among many government entities seeking money in the bonding bill and could come away from the legislative session empty handed.

“There are about $3 billion in requests and there is only $1 billion in the (proposed) bonding bill,” Messelt said. “But we still think it’s worth it to start the conversation.”

Messelt noted the board could know by May 2014 if the county’s request for funding is approved.

In addition to there being far more requests than there is money to go around, Messelt explained the county could face more obstacles in securing the funding.

He said projects that are given money in a bonding bill are usually viewed as ones with “regional or statewide significance,” and some might view a new jail in Chisago County as not meeting those standards.

However, he said sometimes the Legislature and the governor allocate money to projects that “make sense.”

Truth in taxation hearings

Also during the meeting, the board scheduled dates for the public to comment on the county’s proposed 2014 budget and property tax levy. The first opportunity will be at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 4, and the second chance will be the following day at 6 p.m.

The board will adopt the budget and levy at the Thursday, Dec. 5, meeting or at its last regular meeting of the year on Dec. 18.

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