County jail plan takes a new turnAt a special meeting Wednesday, the board re-opened the possibility of building a brand-new jail facility at a green site, one month after approving construction plans for a new Public Works building, part of a compromise meant to deal with the jail crisis.
By: Mike Enright, Alexandria Echo Press
After six years of debating how to best deal with a defunct and deteriorating downtown jail, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners still don’t know where they want to build the obsolete structure’s replacement.
At a special meeting Wednesday, the board re-opened the possibility of building a brand-new jail facility at a green site, one month after approving construction plans for a new Public Works building, part of a compromise meant to deal with the jail crisis.
Suggested last April, that plan called for moving the Public Works department to a new 17-acre site near the fairgrounds, opening up its current location on 3rd Avenue West for construction of a new jail.
After running into higher than anticipated costs, county officials are having second thoughts about moving Public Works and began looking last week for alternative sites.
They found one, a site known as the Ferguson property located near County Road 82 and the proposed Alexandria Area YMCA.
The site is not new to the board, first considered along with other green sites last November but ultimately eliminated.
Back then the county could have purchased between 17.5 and 37 acres of land for $1 per square foot. A current tentative proposal offers 17 acres at $1.35 per square foot, or roughly $1 million, with the seller willing to donate 5 percent of closing costs to the county’s child drug-prevention program and another 5 percent to a YMCA scholarship fund.
During the meeting, county commissioners Dan Olson and Paul Anderson both voiced their support for taking another look at a green site for the jail, voting to continue negotiations for purchasing the property.
The board stalemated on the motion, with the vote split 2-2 in favor and opposed, while one commissioner abstained.
Anderson said he had favored the Ferguson property from the get-go but had settled for the Public Works compromise after it took the board another three years to come to a consensus.
“Now, we’ve got something better, cheaper, where we can save the taxpayers more than $6 million,” he said about building on the proposed green site.
Contegrity Group, Inc., a construction management firm advising the county on the jail project, recently provided commissioners with a cost-comparison for the two options.
The estimate for building on the green site totaled $18.4 million, while moving Public Works to use its current location was estimated at $24.8 million.
With a green-site build, Public Works would stay put, which is just fine, according to department head Dave Robley.
“We’ve said all along we’re fine staying,” he said. “At this point, we would just like to know sooner rather than later, especially if plans are going to change.”
Commissioner Norm Salto opposed the idea of scrapping the previously accepted plan including Public Works.
“If we take and renege on the commitment we made, our word as a board is not worth the paper it is printed on,” he said. “The people of the county and the town are going to laugh at the people here making changes to this project.”
Commissioner Jerry Johnson also voted against continuing negotiations for a green site, while board member Bev Bales abstained, asking for more information about the new site before making a decision.
In a later phone interview, Bales said if the numbers all add up, she would likely support a green-site jail.
“No one wants to save taxpayers dollars more than I do,” she said.
Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen said whatever option the board chooses, it needs to make a decision soon.
That’s because the current jail will be shut down by the Minnesota Department of Corrections in less than a year unless it is either brought up to code or substantial progress has been made on construction of a replacement.
Missing that deadline would force the county to transport all of its prisoners to facilities elsewhere at a cost of thousands of dollars per day.
“I’ve got mixed emotions because I know we’ve got a sunset date out there [of August 1, 2009],” Wolbersen said. “So, we’ve got to move forward.”