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Plan for its mishmash of downtown buildings? County to form committee
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With last week’s vote to build a new county jail/law enforcement center, the Rice County Board of Commissioners answered two big questions Tuesday: How to select an architect for the project and what’s to become of the downtown block that includes the current law enforcement center and main jail?

Commissioners agreed to continue using Klein McCarthy, the firm that conducted the jail study leading to the planned facility. The study which looked at the county’s current facilities, its needs, Department of Corrections requirements and best practices, and the future of jails, last month offered three solutions. Earlier this month, the board, in a 3-2 vote, decided to go with a new facility on an undeveloped parcel, finding it less costly than expanding the aging downtown site and wiser than adding onto the Hwy. 60 jail annex which has existing maintenance issues.

The study was approved by the board in 2019 after the Department of Corrections threatened to convert the main jail downtown, which holds medium-, maximum- and special needs inmates, to a 90-day facility which would mean housing some prisoners outside the county.

Commissioner Steve Underdahl, who sat on the Jail Study Committee and owns a construction company, said Tuesday that he was “comfortable” with keeping the firm on for the next phase of the project.

Underdahl’s endorsement was good enough for commissioners Dave Miller, who also sat on the Jail Study Committee, and Chair Jeff Docken.

The board was also swayed by the potential savings — both in time and money — by going with Klein McCarthy.

Matthew Verdick, the county’s facilities director, estimated that requesting proposals from interested firms could tack on another eight to nine weeks and cost the county another $400,000. While Minnesota doesn’t require local governments to put out bids for professional services, when they do there are strict timelines, which would add weeks to the project. And, Verdick added, there would be additional time to bring a new firm up to speed.

In construction, time is money, and missing certain windows can add to the bottom line. Earlier this month, CNN reported that the cost of steel has tripled since last years. At $1,500 a ton, it’s nearly triple the 20-year average.

Verdick also reminded the board that selecting an architect doesn’t put the project solely in their hands. Commissioners will still have choices that will impact the look, feel and cost of the new facility, he said.

Commissioner Galen Malecha, who’s been unsatisfied with the process for months, preferred to request proposals from qualified firms, even accusing staff and some commissioners of not keeping the board informed as the study was going on.

Miller, who chaired the board in 2020, challenged Malecha, and reminded him that he was free at any time to learn more about the Jail Study Committee’s progress.

Downtown

The board agreed to set up a committee to consider its plans for the downtown jail block. The county owns most of the buildings on the block.

According to Verdick, city leaders are anxious to learn of the county’s plans. Verdick and County Administrator Sara Folsted say they have plenty of ideas, but nothing is firm. Some of the buildings, Folsted has said, are in poor condition, while others, like the Law Enforcement Center, will be repurposed. Faribault Woolen Mill owner Paul Mooty has reportedly asked to tour the former Woolen Mill store at 146 Fourth St. NW, and there’s hope among some area preservationists that the building, though in poor condition, can be revitalized.

In February, Verdick said the county is considering a phased approach, with structures on the northeast corner at Fourth Street NW and First Avenue NW getting first consideration. The northwest corner, including the Woolen Mill building would be next, with the current Law Enforcement Center last.


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City considers waiving some late utility fees
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Faribault city staff are discussing waiving late utility fees on a limited basis.

Finance Director Jeanne Day presented the proposal Tuesday to the Faribault City Council. She noted though late fees must be consistently applied, scenarios sometimes arise that make paying utility bills on time difficult. The proposed changes, if implemented, are not expected to cover an entire utility bill or disconnection fees and would likely not be approved by the council for at least a few months.

According to Day, late fees are typically assessed to the same people on a consistent basis. Information on state assistance programs and pertinent phone numbers are provided for those who have trouble paying. Some churches in the community have even offered to help pay utility bills for those who can’t afford them.

City Councilor Royal Ross said he supports waiving the fees. Fellow Councilor Thomas Spooner said the council shouldn’t waive fees for people who have been consistently late on their bills.

The city does not disconnect utilities for commercial and industrial customers, a practice Day said comes from not wanting to obstruct operations and possibly cost jobs. However, ordinances allow the city the chance to still charge an extra $60 disconnection processing fee on such properties and can reclaim the costs through existing assessments. Day estimated there are a dozen such properties in Faribault.

Councilor Sara Caron said she supports disconnecting the commercial/industrial utilities under those circumstances because residential users face similar disruptions if they don’t pay their bills.

“Everyone deserves a chance,” she said.

Councilor Janna Viscomi suggested the council inform commercial/industrial users who are not current that the city will only assess them for a certain period until they shut utilities off.

In June 2011, Faribault went from assessing utilities from a quarterly to monthly basis and changed the date late fees applied from the 25th of each month to the 5th of the next month.

Bill corrections, appeals

Though state law allows municipal utilities to recover undercharges to customers made over the last six years, Faribault’s practice has been only to go back one year. Staff recommends the city instead go back three years. Despite the city being required to return excess customer payments with interest, Day noted that hasn’t been taking place. Staff reportedly recommends that interest be provided.

Day noted staff also wants to establish an appeals process for billing concerns. A written notice would be provided, and utility staff would work with customers to establish payment arrangements. After being analyzed by the finance director, further appeals would go to the city administrator before possibly coming to the council.


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