Cost of jail shocksDouglas County commissioners left the board room Tuesday is a state of shock after hearing the preliminary cost estimate of a new criminal justice facility – $50 million.
By: Erin Klegstad, Staff Reporter, Alexandria Echo Press
If a half-percent sales tax to help pay for a new jail facility does not pass in the Legislature, Douglas County would have to bond for it – a direct impact on property taxes.
The county could hold a referendum on the bond; property owners would be allowed to vote on it. The county could also use its authority and bond for the facility without a referendum.
The following is a breakdown of possible property tax increases if the county bonded for the facility. (Numbers provided by Elher’s & Associates, the county’s financial advisor for the project.)
Douglas County commissioners left the board room Tuesday is a state of shock after hearing the preliminary cost estimate of a new criminal justice facility – $50 million.
However, the numbers are just that – preliminary.
“I’m not surprised by them, although they are a little higher [than anticipated],” said Scott Fettig, project architect with Klein McCarthy & Co. Architects. “We may not like these numbers, but we think they’re pretty accurate. These should be the worst numbers you see.”
“When we started this process, we knew we’d get to this point,” said Commissioner Dan Olson. “We had to start somewhere. Now we need to start condensing.”
Fettig did stress that there are many ways to reduce the cost of the facility – something to which the board was very receptive.
The largest expense of the project is the jail, which came in at an estimated $25 million.
Following that were the courts facility and a joint law enforcement center (LEC), each an estimated $10 million. The additional $5 million would be “soft costs,” or interior finishes.
One suggestion Fettig had to cut the total cost of the facility was to set an exact dollar amount the board wants to spend and stick to it.
“You have a gut feel of where you want to be,” he said to the board. “You could do it without courts or without a joint LEC.”
Other possibilities to reduce the cost include reducing the quality or quantity of the facility; reducing the number of lobbies (there are currently three); or reducing the project or design contingencies (currently set at 9 and 15 percent, respectively), among many others.
Fettig said as the facility is designed right now, although it’s not over-programmed, it’s not bare bones either.
“It’s tight,” he said. “Any tightening will be difficult.”
He added that it might be a facility the county will have to grow into over time, or build in stages. “You maybe can’t afford it all right away,” he said.
The board is divided as to whether or not to proceed with the jail facility. They all are in agreement, however, that $50 million is too much.
“”We’re going to have to face the public with this one – it scares me,” said Paul Anderson, board chair. “I would just as soon see it slow down until we get the OK on a half-percent sales tax.”
Commissioner John Mingus agreed. “It’s no secret that I’m in favor of this, but quite frankly, I would be scared to take this $50 million to the public,” he said. “We must have this half-percent sales tax to carry out the project the way we feel it must be carried out.”
The half-percent sales tax option was defeated this Legislative session. It could possibly be approved during the next session; if so, the public would be allowed to vote on the issue.
If approved, the sales tax would raise an estimated $2.5 million per year. The county could also bond for the facility, either by referendum or using the county’s authority (see chart that outlines what the impact would be on property taxes).
The possible jail site
While Commissioners Anderson, Mingus and Olson are in favor of continuing further research on the proposed site, Commissioners Bev Bales and Jerry Johnson are a little more cautious.
“I’m still not excited about this location; we need more information on the land,” Bales said. “We’ve got to put this [location] on hold.”
Johnson said that he recently learned that a portion of the property was used as a cement dump for a former cement contractor. He didn’t, however, know how large it was. That would be determined by soil borings.
Commissioners reviewed an aerial photo of the property that outlined portions that were occupied by wetlands – and were surprised at the size of those areas.
Prior to a decision to purchase the property, wetland delineation will be completed to accurately determine exactly where wetlands are located.
The site committee, meanwhile, is continuing to work on a letter of intent with the landowners.
Bales wondered if surrounding counties were going to continue discussions of possibly building a joint jail facility. (Douglas County has had discussions with Pope, Todd, Stevens and Traverse counties about the possibility of building a joint jail.)
“What Douglas County is going to need in the future – that’s where we’re sitting at,” said Nikki Torgrimson with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.
Olson pointed out that although many counties are only looking at 72-hour holds, Douglas County will continue to have conversations with them. “They are all in that balance mode right now,” he said.
Fettig recommended that Douglas County “not design this facility to rent beds. It’s a minor payback,” he said. “I don’t know if the decision hinges on that.”
Douglas County Sheriff Bill Ingebrigtsen agreed, pointing out that when the process started it was because Douglas County needed a jail and LEC.
“We have had other counties involved since day one, and not once have they said they want to join in,” Ingebrigtsen said. “They’re just riding along to see the process, and then they’ll do their own.”
Fettig said that the high number shouldn’t stop the county from continuing on with the project. “Finish the study,” he said. “That will give you the numbers should you wait for the sales tax. Then you’ll have a picture you can take to the public. At least it’s moving forward.”
Ingebrigtsen agreed. “Before you make a decision on spending less, we need to see what it will cost us in the future,” he said.
For the next meeting on August 2, Fettig agreed to bring the board other possible options that would help reduce the cost of the jail facility.