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Regional jail concept intrigues counties

Six area county boards - including Douglas - and four area legislators met last Thursday as part of an open dialogue discussing possible collaboration efforts.

Six area county boards - including Douglas - and four area legislators met last Thursday as part of an open dialogue discussing possible collaboration efforts.

The open dialogue included the counties of Douglas, Pope, Todd, Grant, Stevens and Traverse as well as area legislators Bud Heidgerken (R-Freeport), Mary Ellen Otremba (DFL-Long Prairie), Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) and Senator Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar).

County commissioners from the six counties met for the first time last month to begin talking about possible jail collaboration efforts.

"Change is coming; it's inevitable," said Bill Schalow, Douglas County coordinator. "We need to think out of the box about things we might do together."

Those "things" include a possible regional jail facility between several or all of the counties.

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"I think most counties in the state are looking at what they can do with other counties," said Tony Haassei, Todd County coordinator.

Riaz Aziz, Pope County coordinator, agreed, saying that the "need for collaboration takes on a bigger importance as we go to the future."

He continued, "We are going to have to address those matters in a proactive approach."

Historically, collaboration of services has worked well for the counties involved. Rainbow Rider, Pope/Douglas Solid Waste and Public Health (between Stevens and Traverse counties) are just a few examples.

"It's good for us to have some dialogue with our representatives to see where to go with our collaborative efforts," Aziz said.

A possible "launching point" for the collaboration could be partnering with the state, said Jim Thoreen, Stevens County coordinator.

If there was some incentive from the state to build a joint facility, "maybe we could do things better, more efficiently," Thoreen said.

Paul Anderson, Douglas County commissioner, feels there should be some type of incentive for counties willing to work together.

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"It will draw more counties into this type of collaboration," he said.

Heidgerken said increased funding for counties that share ideas or resources was a possibility. "The starting point for us is to get together," he said, "and then get funding out to those counties who are cutting costs."

Johnson commended the counties for meeting to discuss possible collaboration efforts.

"Your idea for being rewarded for your cooperation - that is excellent," he said. "You shouldn't be punished."

Where the state and counties can really pull together is the methamphetamine challenge. "We can really make a dent," said Gerry Ruda, Todd County commissioner. "I offer that challenge to the future."

The burden of short-term meth offenders is falling on the county, said Dan Olson, Douglas County commissioner. Counties are trying to find the resources to house them, but there "has to be some give and take" between both counties and the state.

"What meth is doing to the prison system is a huge problem," Johnson said.

One possibility to help alleviate the burden of short-term offenders would be to actually partner with the state and build a larger facility.

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Westrom suggested that a larger, 500-bed private facility be looked at. "Maybe this is an area where the state and counties need to collaborate," he said. "Maybe we need to step out of the box and look at a part state facility and part regional facility."

"I'm proud of our joint cooperative," said Bob McCrory, Pope County commissioner. "It's in the best interest of all we serve."

Each county agreed that the joint group will meet again after January 1.

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