Commissioners hope to present more specific numbers to public soon

What is the actual cost difference between building a new jail on green space or redeveloping the county’s current law enforcement space downtown? This is a big question facing Itasca County Commissioners right now as they toil with their decisions about what is the best approach toward a state-mandated renovation and expansion of the county jail.

Last week, during the county board’s regular meeting Commissioner Burl Ives offered his own spreadsheet of suggested costs after he said he consulted with construction companies knowledgeable in such developments. Ives said he broke down numbers for both options, the Green Option (building new) and the Orange Option (renovating existing and expanding downtown). The main motive for his research, Ives explained, was to provide more detailed numbers for actual cost associated with each option so commissioners can relay more accurate information to the public during current community listening sessions being held throughout the county.

According to the Itasca County Jail Task Force’s preliminary conceptual estimate/budgets outline, published Jan. 27, 2020, for both the Orange Option (downtown/westerly expansion) and the Green Option, cost estimates are at approximately $54.7 million and $64.6 million respectively.

The Orange Option cost estimate includes $7.3 million for new construction to improve the space for district courts as well as $3.1 million for property purchases. For the Green Option, these numbers include $21.4 million for district courts construction and $5.9 million for new construction of the law enforcement center. This outline is published on the county’s website at https://www.co.itasca.mn.us/DocumentCenter/View/5419/Budget-Estimates-01-27-2020.

During the Feb. 11 regular board meeting, Commissioner Ives stressed the need to look at the numbers more closely regarding costs associated with property acquisition of the former yoga facility, dry cleaning and fire hall buildings, as well as possibly the Northprint building for future expansion and site demolition. He also felt a cost needed to be considered for remodeling the courthouse for security upgrades should the Green Option be chosen.

With the Green Option, Ives feels there would be several opportunities for relocating and consolidating county offices. Should public health and human services move into open space at the courthouse, Ives suggested moving the land department to the IRC Building along with the sheriff’s repo lot (now located at the former Northside Lumber property near McKinney Lake). Then both the land department building in LaPrairie and the Northside Lumber properties could be sold.

In response, Ives’ fellow commissioners expressed confusion as to how to move forward after presenting the original numbers during public presentations with local townships and associations.

“I’d like to know how we got to this point,” said Commissioner Leo Trunt. “We’ve had the numbers in front of us for six to eight weeks and we’ve showed them to the public. I’m confused as to why at this point in the game we’re almost adding another option.”

Trunt referenced what was referred to as the “blue option,” which entails the remodel of the courthouse to accommodate the changing needs of the district court system. He expressed disbelief at the estimate of $7.3 million for this remodel of the building’s third floor. Trunt also said he’d like “hard numbers” from the county assessor or property owners for land acquisition costs for the orange option.

In further discussion, commissioners questioned how far the county is looking to proceed with future building needs at this point further than complying with the state’s mandate to improve the jail that this point.

“We haven’t flushed out all the ideas,” commented Commissioner Davin Tinquist. “Where do we go from here? Since we’ve put the numbers out, we have to stick with those but I think of these as viable options.”

“As I talk about the two options, I explain that both costs could go up or down and I make sure the public knows we’re doing the best to drill this down,” added Commissioner Terry Snyder. “I prefer to stick with numbers already presented but Commissioner Ives’ numbers should be considered.”

Commissioner Trunt asked that the county obtain letters from surrounding property owners downtown on purchase prices for the Orange Option.

Board Chair Ben DeNucci said he would like a breakdown of costs in order to make the best informed decision.

“I wish we could consider more realistic numbers for the Orange with the remodel,” said Commissioner Ives.

With $54 million for the Orange Option and $64 million for the Green Option listed on the county’s community survey, it was determined to leave these figures and direct county administration to start negotiations with surrounding property owners and the city of Grand Rapids.

The commissioners plan to discuss a more specific breakdown of costs during their Jail Committee meeting Thursday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. at the courthouse boardroom.

In other business on Feb. 11, the county board:

• Recognized county employees Holly Rasley, hired as Human Services Support Specialist, Health and Human Services Department effective Feb. 10, 2020; and Mary Berard who transferred from Eligibility Specialist, Family Services Division to Fraud Prevention Investigator with the Business/Fiscal Division, Health and Human Services Department effective Feb. 3, 2020.

• Heard citizen input from John Casper on concerns regarding abatements for individuals versus businesses.

• Approved commissioner warrants dated Feb. 14, 2020 in the amount of $1,216,479.64.

• Approved 2020 contracts for Court Appointed Attorney with Ross Trooien, Rachel Weis and Bill Thompson and authorize necessary signatures.

• Heard an update from Cre Larson and Tom Gaffney on Itasca County’s Crisis Response Team.

• Heard an update from Kelly Chandler with Health and Human Services regarding a suicide prevention grant. Itasca County’s current suicide rate is one of the highest in the state, explained Chandler. The grant will focus on the following areas: Community efforts, community knowledge, leadership response, community climate, access to knowledge about suicide and resources available. Chandler reports that rural, northern Minnesota has higher rates for suicide partly because of isolation, higher levels of poverty and seasonal, less-stable work.

• Directed staff to begin the process to draft an outside attorney usage policy.

• Approved an application for a Conservation Legacy Partners Grant in cooperation with the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association to accept funds and authorize signatures if awarded.

•Held a closed session to discuss litigation regarding ERP Iron Ore bankruptcy.

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