A divisive and sometimes heated debate on the future of Rice County’s jail ended in a stalemate on Tuesday, as Rice County commissioners decided to put off for at least two weeks a final decision on whether to build a new jail or collaborate with Steele County.
The delay will further prolong a years-long saga that began when the Minnesota Department of Corrections threatened to turn Rice County’s Correctional Center into a 90-day facility due to a lack of space and amenities.
Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn has estimated that this could mean extra expense to the county of close to $1 million per year. Even for Rice County’s Jail to retain its status as a 90-day facility, Dunn said that it would likely require about $44 million in improvements.
As alternatives, the Rice County Board could expand and renovate the Jail and Law Enforcement Center on the site of its current Jail Annex along Highway 60, expand and renovate at the current LEC location downtown, or build a new jail and expand the LEC at its current site.
The new jail and LEC has been the preference of a majority of the County Board and still appears to be. However, Commissioner Galen Malecha has been opposed and at Tuesday’s meeting his colleague Jim Purfeerst expressed hesitance as well.
At Malecha’s behest, the County Board explored the possibility of collaborating with Steele County. Nearly 20 years ago, Steele County built a new jail that now has a capacity far exceeding its needs, with the expectation that it would house inmates from surrounding counties.
Steele County can house close to 150 inmates, but even today Steele County’s own jail study concluded that it only needed about 66 beds. With recent upgrades, County Administrator Scott Golberg said the facility has the staff and capacity needed to accommodate Rice County.
Golberg and Steele County Commissioner Jim Abbe attended Rice County’s board meeting Tuesday to talk about their proposal for a possible collaboration. Under a plan approved by the Steele County Board, Rice County would buy into Steele County’s Detention Center in Owatonna for about $7 million and then split costs 50-50.
Though Abbe said he wasn’t there to make a “sales pitch,” the proposal received unanimous backing from Steele County’s Board. Board Chair James Brady called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” when Steele County commissioners met Monday to discuss their proposal to Rice County.
The Department of Corrections is less thrilled, however. Last month, two Department of Corrections officials testified that despite Steele County’s assertions, Owatonna’s Detention Center would not in fact be truly able to accommodate Rice County’s needs.
Sarah Johnson, who works in enforcement and inspections for the DOC, emphasized to the Rice County Board that not all beds are created equal. When taken into a jail, inmates are assessed and classified based on factors such as gender, security risk, and medical and mental health needs.
The Department of Corrections requires an inmate’s classification to match the kind of bed they occupy. Johnson’s DOC colleague Jen Pfiefer said they anticipated that a merged Rice-Steele Detention Center simply wouldn’t have enough special needs beds, for example.
Based in part off of testimony from Johnson and Pfiefer, Rice County Commissioners Jeff Docken, Steve Underdahl and Dave Miller appear set to approve the construction of a new jail at a cost of $49 million, seeing it as a massive expense necessitated by years of falling behind.
“I’m really looking for a long-term solution on this,” Underdahl said. “We haven’t been doing anything to help the jail in recent years.”
Malecha expressed frustration from the get-go, arguing that the county hasn’t been transparent enough with taxpayers or even fully done its homework about the new jail’s significant cost and how it plans to pay for it.
That rankled Docken, who noted that Finance Director Paula O’Connell has estimated the potential impact of the new jail. With a 30-year loan, O’Connell projects the annual costs to taxpayers to come out to about $2.2 million, raising levies on a $250,000 home by about $70.
Malecha raised concerns about the impact of such an increase on taxpayers, and even Purfeerst was lukewarm. He suggested that it might be most appropriate for the county to focus on the jail or to accept Steele County’s offer.
“I hear a lot about (Steele County) coming in at the 11th hour, but I don’t know if we ever really reached out to Steele County on this,” he said.