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Commissioners approve $1 million wall project for Detention Center


After exhausting all other options and several lengthy discussions on the results of a space study, the Steele County Board of Commissioners has put the stamp of approval on the next steps for the local jail.

During its Tuesday meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved moving forward with one of five scenarios presented as a solution to the “money drain” the Steele County Detention Center has created over recent years. The scenario they approved includes the construction of a roughly $1 million wall in the center pod to allow the facility to remain operating as a two-pod jail, but with four classifications instead of three. The classifications will include maximum, medium and minimum security male inmates and one general classification for female inmates.

The future of where the Steele County Sheriff’s Office will be located, however, is still up in the air.

County Administration Scott Golberg said this option will allow the Detention Center to continue operating as it has since June, when the minimum pod was closed, due to severe staff shortages.

Though the Steele County Detention Center has a three-pod design, the minimum security pod for male inmates was closed in June due to severe staffing shortages. The medium security pod for males and the female pod are still operational. (File photo/southernminn.com)

“We reduced our staffing to accommodate the lower inmate population, but by adding this wall we will be able to operate more effectively and safely,” Golberg said. “Our Detention Center staff has done an outstanding job during the pandemic by keeping inmates healthy and safe with less staff, and also during this decision making process — I know that has been hard on them.”

This scenario allows the detention center to stay at the reduced staffing level, lowering annual expenditures by approximately $700,000.

Investing in public safety

Though the vote was unanimous, the second favored scenario would bring the most dramatic change to the county — no longer detaining prisoners in the Steele County facility. Commissioner Greg Krueger, however, said he believed it would not be in the community’s best interest to select that option.

“For the safety of the public, for the health and well-being of the inmates, for the continuity of the courts and [law enforcement] and Community Corrections … keeping a facility like this in our community is vital,” Krueger said. “With the programming that goes on out there, I think the rate of recidivism is less, because we have that facility here.”

Commissioner John Glynn agreed with Krueger, but said he would like to see the scenario where the detention center no longer holds inmates — and instead acts as a “booking station for arrests” — be kept in mind, because it could “possibly save a couple million annually.” This scenario has been labeled the “Dodge County model.”

Though the option selected by the commissioners includes an expensive construction project, it will have the best overall levy impact on the taxpayers, with the exception of the Dodge County model. The winning option does not forecast any loss in revenue or additional costs to house certain inmates, such as females, in another location. The overall levy to the taxpayers with this option will decrease by nearly $100,000 next year.

The Steele County Detention Center, which was built in 2003 for $12.75 million, has remained a topic of frustration for a number of years. The Steele County Board of Commissioners prioritized finding a balance between what is best for public safety and how to lessen the burden on taxpayers. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Authorization from the Department of Corrections is still needed for this plan, and it will take into consideration other DOC guidelines for when or if the third pod at the Detention Center is reopened. Golberg said funding for the wall would come out of the county reserves or utilize funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Dollars spent

“Public safety is a big issue and we know public safety costs money,” said Krueger, adding that he feels this is the best option after the jail was “falsely sold to the general public under different circumstances.” 

The current Steele County Detention Center opened in October 2003. It sits on 18.63 acres, is a total structure of 58,575 square feet, and has a rated capacity of 154 beds. The total cost of the project was $12.75 million. When the detention center was first built, the county has multiple contracts with other counties and the state and federal government. Since then, those contracts have changed or were discontinued, and the jail began generating a worsening annual deficit.

The detention center has $3.9 million more expenses than revenue slated in the 2021 budget, and in 2020, it had $3.5 million more expenses than revenue.

The total net value of assets at the facility is $14 million, with the land and building valued at $7.5 million and its improvements valued at $6.3 million, according to Steele County Treasurer Cathy Piepho. The county’s debt for the building is $8 million: $3.2 million on the building and $4.9 million for building improvement projects.

Taking the numbers into consideration, Commissioner Jim Abbe echoed Krueger’s beliefs that the taxpayers of Steele County were sold on the new facility on a “false bill of goods.”

“This is a tough decision that we have to make, and we understand that, but it is our role,” said Abbe. “We’re talking about a lot of dollars, but [these decisions] are not always about the dollars and cents. Jails just don’t make money, we get that … we are going to have to continue to challenge our staff to look for ways to lessen the financial burden and continue to look for ways to cost save.”

The minimum security pod at the Steele County Detention Center has remained empty since June, when extreme staffing shortages forced the County’s hand to reduce staff levels. After agreeing to build a wall to divide one of the other pods, the Detention Center will remaining operating as is, but once again accommodating four classifications of inmates. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Abbe added that all of the department heads in the county have done a good job at keeping a tight budget and that he plans on seeing more of that moving into the future.

With the construction of the wall, the Detention Center will have an 86-maximum housing capacity with the operational capacity sitting at 73. The Detention Center will have 20 correctional officers on staff.

The next steps for the Detention Center will be hammering down a solid estimate for the construction of the wall, said Golberg, which should be done within the next two months. Construction at the Detention Center should start late this year or in the first quarter of 2022.

Master Plan

Following the approval of the detention center direction, the board unanimously passed the conceptual 2021 master plan, which details the future of several departments, services and buildings for the county.

While the final plan has yet to be approved, the commissioners were in agreement in a few key areas of the concept presented before them: renovating the lower level of the county administration building, moving the University of Minnesota – Extension offices to the Steele County Fairgrounds, moving Community Corrections to the new construction site at the Steele County Attorney’s Office, and renovating the County Annex building for Steele County Public Health. Each of these projects have tentative years between 2022-24.

By moving the Extension offices to the fairgrounds, roughly 7,000 square feet in the Annex building would be freed up for Public Health to grow. This would, however, require the county to reinvest in the building, which includes about $1.75 million in deferred maintenance costs that include a leak in the basement and a neglected roof. Security upgrades to the building would also be required in the earlier phases of the project, which in the end could total an estimated $4.5 million.

With the 2021 Master Plan, the Steele County Annex Building will have to receive security updates and undergo roughly $1.75 million in deferred maintenance costs. (File photo/southernminn.com)

During a Tuesday work session, the commissioners also were keen on the idea of building evidence storage and a facilities maintenance shop, though the site of where these items would call home is still up for discussion. In the conceptual master plan, however, roughly $1.65 million is allocated for these projects.

Also outlined in the conceptual master plan is the future site of the Steele County Sheriff’s Office, which the board agreed still needs to have further discussion. In the plan, though, the idea is to move the department to the Steele County Detention Center and build an addition for a total cost of $5.5 million.

Not ready to commit to those decisions quite yet is why the board approved the plan “in concept.”

“This leaves us open for discussion on the Sheriff’s Office and evidence storage,” Krueger said. “But it gives [administration] some parameters to start putting a package together that we can work with.”

Though with the newly approved plan for the Detention Center, a third pod will remain empty, Golberg said the commissioners understand the importance of keeping that pod available in case the inmate population sees an increase in the future.

“At this point, we just don’t want to do any major construction in that pod that could impair any future needs,” he said.

Golberg said the board will be expected to approve the final plan — along with the estimated costs — before the end of they year. Most of the $7.1 million Steele County received from the American Rescue Plan Act could go to the projects outlined in the master plan, said Golberg, but no dollars have been targeted yet.

Local woman aims to foster creativity for children through craft classes
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Many people lost their jobs in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Audrea Horejsi of Ellendale was no exception. However, she decided to embrace the unknown and embark on her own business venture after her daughter suggested she turn her crafting hobby into a living.

Horejsi posted to Facebook and asked if area parents would be interested in craft classes for their children. The response, she said, was overwhelmingly positive. Crafts and Creations officially became her home-based business earlier this month, and Horejsi said she was elated to be an official small business owner and craft instructor for kids. Many people in the surrounding communities have been supportive of her new business and have donated their own craft materials.

“I like to do all sorts of crafting — I worked in an office setting most of my life, so this was something new,” Horejsi said. “After making a Facebook post and seeing there was a lot of interest, I got everything set up and finalized and began reaching out to local community education groups to start teaching the classes.”

Horejsi has a long history of being involved in creating crafts, keepsakes, photography and more. She previously set up crafting stations for kids through her church and has taught craft classes through local community education programs prior to making being a craft instructor her full-time job. She has been a troop leader for the Girl Scouts and was successful in more than doubling the members in a single school year. She believes in prioritizing hands-on learning for children to get a sense of creative freedom through art.

She will be teaching her “Kids Just Wanna Have Fun” classes through community education in five communities in the coming months. She has classes available in Blooming Prairie, N.R.H.E.G., Albert Lea, Wells, and Waseca. She is also working with community education in Owatonna and will likely be offering classes in January.

Michelle Southworth, the community education coordinator in Blooming Prairie, said she was more than happy to work with Horejsi to bring this class to the community.

“I know how passionate [Horejsi] is about creative things, so it was easy to get the green light from [the superintendent] to do this,” Southworth recalled.

The classes are geared towards children in grades K-6. Horejsi said that some classes will offer two to three different projects that are fun for all ages and kids who attend can choose to do one project or attempt all three. Each class will last an hour.

Horejsi warns that the classes will function slightly different in each town. Horejsi recommends that those interested contact their preferred community education office for further details about the class and get registered.

Most of the communities that are hosting her class begin in October and run through March.

Masks are required for all persons attending the class. Because Horejsi knows how unpredictable things can be with the pandemic looming, she is working on a plan to create craft kits for those who cannot attend the classes due to time constraints or if in-person courses cannot be held.

“Being creative gives children a voice through their artwork,” Horejsi said. “I feel creativity is so important, and I want to bring this opportunity to the table for children.”

Water park sees record year during extreme summer heat

The consistent heat may not have been welcome by farmers and other growers this summer, but it presented the Owatonna community with an easy excuse to take full advantage of the community’s splashiest amenity.

River Springs Water Park closed Aug. 23 with a record-breaking season, bringing in 35,021 visitors during the three-month season. The attendance this year shattered the previous record of 30,724 visitors in 2015. The water park did not open in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but in 2019, there were only 28,300 users.

Jeffrey Jackson / By JEFFREY JACKSON jjackson@owatonna.com 

The River Springs Water Park in Owatonna saw a record-breaking year in attendance, bringing in 35,021 visitors during the summer. (File photo/southernminn.com)

“We had a really good summer,” said Jenna Tuma, the parks and recreation director for the city of Owatonna. “We had 25 days of 90-plus degrees, so we had record temperatures, too.”

Tuma said that, while the water park is an expensive amenity to operate, it is clear that the community values having it.

The water park hosted a variety of fun events this season, including a family movie night in August, a cardboard boat regatta in July, “tiny tot” time throughout the season and the “Twilight Tuesday” admission special every Tuesday.

Brooktree Golf Course also had a good year, with a total of 290 members — up 41 from 2020. Though there were more memberships in 2021, only 17,189 rounds were played as of Aug. 31. During the height of the pandemic last summer, 17,529 rounds of golf were played at Brooktree. Pre-COVID in 2019, a total of 16,301 rounds of golf were played during the summer.

Though the total rounds of golf played at Brooktree Golf Course were slightly down, memberships at Owatonna’s course went up in 2021. (File photo/southernminn.com)

“[Our memberships] are going up in the senior category and some in the juniors,” said Tuma. She added that the rise in memberships is largely thanks to Tom Vizina, the clubhouse manager at Brooktree who first signed on in 2019. At the end of his third year, however, Tuma said Vizina has notified her that he is not interested in renewing his agreement.

The contract for the clubhouse started at $83,000 and was increased by $3,500 each of the following two years.

“We want to thank Tom for his work that he has done out at the golf course and clubhouse,” Tuma said, adding that the city will re-evaluate how they will move forward at the end of the golf season.