Commissioners vote ‘no’ on property purchase for jail

A week after receiving a lengthy report from the task force charged with researching plans to address Itasca County’s failing jail facility, the Itasca County Board established a new jail committee during the board’s regular meeting Nov. 12. This committee is to include all five county commissioners as the committee of the whole.

The main recommendation of the task force’s report was to develop a combined Justice Center to incorporate the jail, county attorney’s office, probation office, sheriff’s office and the courts. The taskforce felt the most feasible route would be to build the new facility at a remote greenspace south of the airport in Grand Rapids rather than renovate and expand at the current location at the Itasca County Courthouse downtown.

Also on the agenda Nov. 12 was a request for board action to authorize the sheriff and county administrator to enter into a purchase agreement to acquire the property south of the airport for a price of $129,900. After considerable discussion, the request failed in a vote of three to two with Commissioners Terry Snyder, Leo Trunt and Ben DeNucci against the purchase and Chair Davin Tinquist and Commissioner Burl Ives in favor.

Prior to the vote, County Administrator Brett Skyles explained that the property had been for sale for a while and “at a pretty good price.” Skyles also confirmed that it was being sold through a local realtor and the purchase agreement expired Nov. 15.

“Is it possible to extend that?” Commissioner Snyder asked upon which Commissioner Ives said he heard from the realtor that Nov. 15 was the final date.

“It will go back on the market tomorrow if we don’t buy it today,” added Commissioner Ives who explained that he supported the purchase as “just an option and a fairly cheap option” to secure while the county decides which route it wants to go. “As a developer, I look at it as a no-brainer.”

“Our land inventory is fluid,” commented Chair Tinquist. “Land purchases are always contentious but the bottom line is they’re meant to be fluid.”

“Basically, by the board securing this land acquisition, the board is really maintaining the viability of all options,” explained Sheriff Vic Williams who voiced concerns that the board could “pigeon-hole ourselves into no other options. This opens it up so that we know we have options. We know [the county] is land-rich and money-poor but this purchase allows for the greenspace option and we know [the property] is viable for a jail.”

“If we don’t do the greenspace, we can sell it; it just gives us options,” continued Commissioner Ives.

With the land purchase not approved, the board plans to begin regular meetings during evening hours at various locations throughout the county. The meeting dates and locations will be published with hopes to gather public input and discussion. County staff will attend those meetings and minutes will be taken.

“This would ensure better transparency,” said Commissioner Trunt who proposed the idea of the full board serving on the committee and suggested they invite county experts and consultants to those meetings as well to bring the board “the facts and figures.”

“I agree with Leo that the board needs to be involved as a whole so we all get the information,” said Commissioner Snyder. “I think there is still a lot of questions the board has and a lot of questions the public has.”

Commissioner Trunt also said he would like to see the county set some parameters for the project such as the defined location and cost limit.

Commissioner Ives agreed, “The community needs to understand what they want then we’ll go out for bids and we’ll need to have a dollar amount and how much we’re willing to spend. Do we want a Chevy Impala or a Cadillac?”

“This board can bring in the expertise as we need it,” continued Trunt who pointed out the need to know how many inmates are transferred out of county to determine the number of beds needed. “I know there are ways to pull that information in, we just need goal-setting.”

“This is a big issue, it’s going to cost our taxpayers money regardless of what direction we go or where it is,” said Snyder. “It’s something that’s necessary and we owe it to the public [to ensure transparency].”

With trends showing inmate growth in the Itasca County Jail up 6% annually since 2007, Commissioner Ives stressed the importance of looking at all spending including costs associated with transporting inmates even whether it’s only five or ten miles.

The state has provided a time frame for local officials to determine needs and develop a plan to address the identified deficiencies whether that is to replace the facility and construct a new facility or make appropriate repairs and renovations. The state set the sunset date for the Itasca County Jail as Sept. 1, 2021.

Chair Tinquist said the Department of Corrections has already indicated that the county is behind on the timeline, “so an extension is a must.”

In other business on Nov. 12, the board:

• Heard public input from LaNea Johnson regarding the new jail committee, potential purchase of property and data requests; Mary Molly Randall regarding the new jail committee; and Charlene Nelson regarding the land purchase for the new jail.

• Recognized county employees: Rodney Aultman, retiring from his position of highway maintenance worker sub-foreman with Road and Bridge after more than 37 years of service; Kelsey Gibson, resigning from her position of managed care nurse with IMCare after more than one year of service; Becky Tillma, hired as public health nurse with Health and Human Services effective Oct. 28; and Kathy Derickson, hired as emergency communications specialist with the Sheriff’s Department.

• Approved Commissioner Warrants in the amount of $1,793,834.06, with a check date of Oct. 25.

• Accepted the 2020 Mental Health Combined Screening Grant from the Department of Human Services in the amount of $229,152.

• Accepted a Changemaker Grant for the CHIPS Diversion program from the University of Minnesota Extension service in the amount of $1,200 and authorized Itasca County to act as the fiscal host for the grant.

• Approved reallocation of a MN Choice Assessor position to a Public Health Nurse position.

• Heard a report from Public Health Division Manager Kelly Chandler on vaping-associated lung injuries and influenza vaccinations. According to Chandler there have been 110 cases of lung injuries in Minnesota with three deaths and 39 cases in review. In Itasca County, there have been three cases identified as resulting from vaping. Chandler encouraged people to get their flu vaccine, available at most pharmacies at through public health by calling 218-327-2941.

• Accepted the final Environmental Trust Fund 2019 Grant Report from the Grand Rapids FFA and approved the grant in the amount of $5,020. Student representatives Jacob Anderson and Tyler Curtiss provided an update on the GRHS group. Several students recently traveled to Washington D.C. to compete on the national FFA level in their projects and took top placements.

• Reviewed the 2018 Land Department Annual Report as presented by Land Commissioner Kory Cease.

• Heard an update on surveying and mapping from County Surveyor Guy Carlson.

• Acknowledged receipt of payment in PILT Act litigation of Kane County Utah V. United States and accepted the payment of $15,198 (for years 2015-2017) to be directed to the county general fund.

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