The Carlton County Board of Commissioners got an updated estimate on its planned justice center project during its jail steering committee meeting Monday, Sept. 20.
Jail administrator and project manager Paul Coughlin told the board the estimated cost of the new justice center is between $66.8 million and $70.2 million.
The estimates do not include the $2 million the state allocated to Carlton County to develop a female offender program, which will slightly reduce the cost of the jail to taxpayers.
Even with the state money, the cost of the jail is expected to go over the $60 million figure the Minnesota Legislature approved for the county’s half cent local option sales tax (LOST) vote in November 2022.
The county board hoped to use sales tax to pay for the entire project instead of the costs being added to the property tax levy.
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Commissioner Dick Brenner asked if there was any opportunity to go back to the state and increase the amount the county could raise through sales taxes.
Carlton County economic development director Mary Finnegan and Coughlin both said it was possible, but with the state just passing a tax bill earlier in 2021, the likelihood of another making its way through the Legislature in 2022 was unlikely.
Brenner and Commissioner Gary Peterson both asked if the size of the estimated 110,000-square-foot facility could be reduced to save money.
Earlier in September, representatives from the departments expected to be housed in the justice center — the jail and court administration, which includes the Carlton County Attorney’s office and the Carlton County Sheriff’s Office — met with the goal of reducing the space needed by 10%. The only piece that didn’t meet that goal was the jail because of state requirements for detention space, Coughlin said.
Peterson also noted that while the facility is slated to have 80 beds for inmates, plus 16 more for the female offender program, there were just 20 people on the jail roster when he checked last week. Peterson wondered if the county was perhaps “overbuilding” the justice center.
Sheriff Kelly Lake said while the roster is small right now, the COVID-19 pandemic has kept the number down over the last 18 months, but the 80-bed detention center was what research showed would best serve the county over the next 30 to 40 years.
“That is the best educated projection that we have and that’s going off numbers we have seen,” Lake said. “Are we going to be full the day we open? I hope not, because if we are, we did something wrong in the planning.”
Coughlin pointed back to a meeting in February when the board was presented with six different options ranging from a central processing center only to a Class III jail with 80 beds plus male and female offender programs. The options showed the 20 and 30 year costs of the more robust facilities was actually less than a $30 million central processing center.
The scope of the project has increased since the county moved its preferred site to the property adjacent to its transportation building in Carlton, but the estimated savings over the life of the facility remain similar.
“My argument all along with this has been that the number 80 isn’t random,” Couglin said. “It’s very specific to staffing and life cycle costs.”
Coughlin also noted the county is currently paying to keep an average of 14 people per day at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center in Saginaw. With the new, 80-bed facility, the county can bring 10 of those people to Carlton for treatment and programming, saving the county approximately $400,000 per year.
Cuzzo pledges support
Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Michael Cuzzo attended the meeting Monday to encourage the county board to continue pursuing the justice center project because of security concerns at the Carlton County Courthouse.
“I love the old buildings that we have in our district,” Cuzzo said. “The problem is that gorgeous older buildings weren’t designed to function in this modern environment and that requires substantial renovation. They require substantial upkeep. It requires substantial consideration of the safety concerns that have developed over the last century.”
With the Sixth Judicial District expected to request significant changes to the courthouse in the near future, the county began planning a justice center with the courts and law enforcement operations moving to the same site.
Judge Rebekka Stumme, who is chambered in Carlton County, said she has worked in every courthouse in the district, and the Carlton County Courthouse has the most need.
“I look at the fourth floor courtroom and it’s just absolutely not safe,” Stumme said. “If somebody were to go and lose their marbles up there, I would have staff I could not get out. Sheriff Lake’s people are wonderful and I have every confidence in them, but there’s also limits to be what can be done for safety in the spaces that we have.”
Cuzzo pledged support from the Sixth Judicial District in helping move the project forward and getting additional funding for the justice center.
“We will do everything we can to help promote this project,” Cuzzo said. “We will stand behind you as far as any efforts you need to make in order to move forward with this justice center project.”
Peterson said one of his main concerns is keeping as much of the cost of the project off the property tax levy as possible.
“I just want to get to the point where we’re covering this bill without it hitting the levy,” Peterson said. “That’s a big complaint for our people, and if we can get this whole thing covered with the half cent sales tax, I think that’s ideal.”