Kicking the can down the road isn’t going to cut it anymore.
That’s the message from members of a Rice County task force asked to consider how best to modernize the county’s jail and law enforcement operations.
In a nearly 200-page report presented Tuesday to the Board of Commissioners, the task force — which included two commissioners, Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, Administrator Sara Folsted, Facilities Director Matt Verdick and hired consultants — recommended the county build a 76-bed jail with a $55 million to $58 million price tag. Land for the new facility is not included in the total cost.
And while Commissioners Dave Miller and Steve Underdahl, who sat on the task force, say they’re convinced a new facility is the best option, Commissioners Galen Malecha and Jim Purfeerst weren’t so sure.
Both Malecha and Purfeerst agreed with their colleagues that locating a new facility on the current downtown site makes no sense, given the site’s topography and space constraints, but asked its administrator to check in with Steele County leaders before moving forward.
Malecha, who balked at the proposed cost, said he wanted to explore all options before going to the taxpayers with a project the size recommended.
Both cited a recent email from Steele County Administrator Scott Golberg asking Rice County to predict its future use of the Steele County Detention Center. While the two commissioners feel as if the email represents a request to partner with their southern neighbor, Golberg told the Owatonna People’s Press earlier this month that his board is simply looking for an informal discussion while Steele County considers re-allocating the space in its Detention Center.
Steele County, which is undergoing a jail study of its own, has an abundance of space and is considering converting part of its detention center for other uses. Part of its due diligence, Golberg said, is understanding the plans of surrounding counties that use the Steele County facility. Golberg sent a similar email to the Waseca County Board of Commissioners.
Commissioners aren’t much interested in waiting.
Underdahl cautioned the board not to delay, noting that it needs to make a decision within just a few weeks if it’s going to go out for bids by year’s end and break ground next spring.
Rice County has time, but not much. Paul Schnell, Minnesota’s Department of Corrections commissioner, has postponed a decision on converting the main jail to a 90-day facility, which would stop it from holding prisoners longer than 90 days, but that’s contingent on the county’s progress on its jail study.
Rice County has long known the Department of Corrections had issues with programming and recreation space in its main jail, but not until the commissioner threatened the county’s ability to hold prisoners at its main jail for more than three months, did the board again begin looking at options.
Currently, the county houses inmates in one of two facilities: a main jail on Third Street NW in downtown Faribault or at its Hwy. 60 annex, a former U.S. Army Reserve Center. The downtown site, built in 1975, houses medium- and maximum-security prisoners while the annex houses lower-security prisoners and those serving on work release. Both facilities are in poor condition.
According to Folsted, the city of Faribault has been kept apprised of the task force’s work and back the report’s findings. A jail on the annex site isn’t optimum, Folsted said, relaying the city’s comments. City leaders, she said, feel the site, on a main thoroughfare and surrounded by commercial development could serve a better purpose.
And while concerns about costs were a priority for commissioners, Folsted and County Finance Director Paula O’Connell, said that large bond payments will end in the near future, offsetting most new debt.