Walker, other board members clash again over jail project

Discussions on the Chisago County Jail project often get heated during County Board meetings, and the March 2 meeting fit with that theme: a red herring was mentioned, as was Adolph Hitler.
The discussion started out simple enough, with a jail committee report.
Commissioner George McMahon noted he and Commissioner Mike Robinson had attended a capital investment committee meeting that day at the state Capitol to talk about the jail project; representatives from other counties were also there to speak about projects in their areas.
“We were all in there talking about our jails,” McMahon said. “Before we got to the jails, the committee had a big discussion of prisons, as prisons go, and some of the issues facing prisons today. Our portion of the presentation, I think, went well.”
Robinson agreed with McMahon’s assertion.
“I felt better today than since it started,” he said in reference to the county possibly receiving bonding money this legislative session to help offset the cost of building a new jail on county-owned land in Center City. “It seemed like they were listening, and it seemed like something might happen.”
Then County Administrator Bruce Messelt detailed a timeline for the project, explaining that the county is in the process of advertising for bids. The official issuance of bids started yesterday.
“The bids are to be received on March 29 of this year,” he said. “We then will go into vetting the bids, ranking and scoring them and then looking at initial contract negotiations with the intent of coming to the board on April 20.”
Messelt said the project cost estimate remains about $24 million, but there are a pair of factors that could increase that amount.
“Center City is indicating they may be interested in adding another specialty sanitary sewer requirement on the jail,” he said. “We do not think it’s necessary. It’s also expensive: $80,000. We’re working through that with Center City. Item No. 2 is a want, not a need: a video visitation system.”
Commissioner Lora Walker, who has been a vocal opponent of building a new jail, questioned Messelt about how much construction of the building could cost taxpayers.
Even if the county receives no money toward the project in the bonding bill, Messelt said the jail could still be constructed without raising the levy. He explained that the county allocates at least $500,000 each year to out-of-county placement of prisoners that the current facility cannot accommodate. He also noted the county could choose to use its county program aid — money certified yearly from the state to counties — to keep the project from having a levy impact.
If the county bonded for the whole project and didn’t use any program aid, Messelt said the tax impact would be about a 1-2 percent levy increase, which would equate to an increase in the county portion of property taxes anywhere from zero to $40 per year over the life of the suggested 20-year bond.
Walker asked Messelt about the interest on that bond, and he said the interest over the life of the loan would depend on how much the county borrowed and the rate, but he estimated it could be about $8 million. He noted that the high-end possible tax increase of $40 yearly on some homes included interest.
Walker also expressed concern that earmarking county program aid to building the jail was not a wise choice.
“My concern that I’ve had with this project is we’re programming all of our county program aid toward this one need in the county, rather than using it as it was intended, for any need in the county,” she said, mentioning that she was also doubtful that a new jail would completely halt the need for certain classifications of prisoners to be placed out of county.
Commissioner Ben Montzka thanked Walker for her comments and said he thought she was doing what she thought was best for the county, but her comments about possible minimal tax increases or the new facility maybe not being able to house 100 percent of prisoner classifications all the time was really a “red herring.”
“I’d like to explain what a red herring is,” Montzka said. “A red herring is traditionally a dried fish that opponents of rabbit hunting use to drag across the hunting trails in England. The reason why you logically talk about is because it focuses on an issue that is not the whole picture. It’s the smell of what it is, but it’s not exactly what it’s about.”
He said the new jail would address the county’s current needs and its requirements 20 years down the road, and the efficiency of the new facility would save the county millions of dollars. Montzka continued that other analysis that shows it doesn’t save millions of dollars if flawed fundamentally.
Walker said she was offended by Montzka’s comments. He later apologized for the “red herring” reference during his committee report at the end of the meeting.
Robinson said he’s heard that there are people going around the county telling residents that if the county approved building the new jail, that would result in a per household tax increase of $500 per year.
“I talked to Dennis Freed (the county auditor) about this matter. If our levy went up 1 percent, my county share would go up $5.50. At 2 percent, it would be $11,” he said. “What bothers me is for the last six months, there have been people going out there scaring people and saying, ‘Your taxes will go up $500 a household,’ and it was so far from the truth. They were saying, oh, you have to vote out George and Rick (Greene) and me because we’re just wasting their money, and that ain’t true. You know, Adolph Hitler used to try to scare the people when he was in charge, and that’s what this looked like with this guy who kept going over and over and over that $500 or more a family would have to pay on their taxes — (he was) trying scare them that they’re going to lose their houses.”

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