Consequential Decision Before County Board

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Swift County’s Board of Commissioners is about to make a historic decision that will have far-reaching and long-lasting impacts on everything from our tax bills, to the aesthetic beauty of the historic courthouse, to future operational costs for law enforcement, to the potential economic future of the City of Benson.

Commissioners plan on voting at their Feb. 5 meeting on whether or not to construct a $17.475 million justice center that will house the Swift County Sheriff’s Office and jail operations; 6W Community Corrections; Swift County Human Services; the Swift County Attorney’s Office; and Restorative Practices.

Of that total, $11.94 million is for a justice center and $5.925 million for the human services operation. Another $390,000 represents the cost of issuing the bonds. With interest charges over the life of the bonds, however, the price is closer to $30 million.

Three of five county commissioners strongly support going ahead with construction – Gary Hendrickx, District 1-Appleton; Pete Peterson, District 3-south Benson and Torning Township; and Eric Rudningen, District 5-Kerkhoven. Commissioner Joe Fox, District 4-Hegbert Township, is on the fence.  Commissioner Ed Pederson, District 2-north Benson and Benson Township, is a definite no.

Those who support the project say it is needed to meet not only today’s jail and law enforcement needs, but to provide future jail space for the county. It is necessary to reduce the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent housing prisoners annually outside the county. It will free deputies from the couple thousands of hours they spend annually transporting prisoners back and forth from jails in other counties.

They also say it will create savings and greater operational efficiency with the employees of the included offices all working out of the same building rather than in three locations. They say it will provide badly needed security for staff that is lacking in the current buildings.

Rudningen, Peterson, and Hendrickx say it will mean an investment in the county rather than money spent outside the county that never comes back. And, no matter what, the three say, the county is going to have to pay millions addressing its security and operational needs in its current buildings if it doesn’t build a new justice center.

Pederson, on the other hand, points to the widespread opposition to the project he hears from constituents and county taxpayers. He says that changes in sentencing guidelines could lead to fewer people being jailed. And, he says, some taxpayers of Swift County are already seeing higher bills due to the $26.3 million District 777 Public School’s levy.

The public can’t say it hasn’t been well informed about the proposal. There have been numerous, detailed, stories on the proposed project and the reasoning behind it published in the Swift County Monitor-News, as well as The Appleton Press and the Kerkhoven Banner.

Swift County has conducted public meetings in Appleton, Kerkhoven, and Benson to gather citizen input. Except for a few citizens, however, the meetings were largely ignored by county residents and taxpayers.

We elect leaders to study issues, ask questions, seek constituent input, seek the advice of experts, and then make a decision distilled from the knowledge they have gained. Increasingly, we are seeing the citizen part of this decision-making equation becoming less meaningful – not because elected officials don’t seek their input, but because citizens are dropping out. As a result, we are likely to see more decisions in the future where the public has minimal input before consequential votes are made.

We know from today’s jail numbers that the facility is overflowing with Swift County probably spending at least $20,000 a month related to out-of-county inmate placements. An increasing number of female prisoners, longer sentences, and changing Minnesota Department of Corrections rules are three of the factors behind the trend.

Justice Planning Associates, a South Carolina firm that specializes in jail operations, planning, and design, completed a $30,000 study that shows despite a falling population the county will see an increased jail space need in the coming decades.

It has been argued that the potential regionalization of jails and programs provided through human services could lead to the county sitting with an expensive, under-used building. However, it could also be argued that with a quality facility that can serve the region we position ourselves to be a regional center rather than having the employment and services taken away.

“A third option is no jail, no dispatch,” Sheriff John Holtz told commissioners and citizens at the Jan. 15 county board meeting. This option means dispatchers in a remote location who don’t know the county, leading to confusion and longer response times for law enforcement and emergency medical teams. It means much higher costs of out-of-county placement, perhaps double or triple what we are paying today. It means the loss of employees and residents of Swift County.

Though the information about the proposed plan has been deeply researched and made available to the public, we see some holes in the conversation.

When a new jail was proposed for the county back in the early 1980s, the first designs were less than aesthetically pleasing, in fact, they downright clashed with the historic courthouse. It was when commissioners listened to the citizens of Swift County that they considered more carefully the design, coming up with the sheriff’s office and jail that sits on the site today.

We have been given three architect’s drawings of a proposed new justice center, but we don’t recall the county board saying anything about which of the three would be the final choice; that leaves us fearing that it will be the cheapest version possible.

What are the costs of the different options and what will the proposed levy give us? Citizens deserve to know the answer to those questions before commissioners vote on a new building.

Further, as has been pointed out, there are other sites around Benson on which a new justice center could be constructed. This could be a cheaper option that doesn’t detract from the courthouse, but then it has the downside of not being adjacent to the courthouse where prisoners appear for hearings.

Why the urgency? Rudningen, Hendrickx, and Peterson say they have sought all the information necessary to make a decision and have given the public more than adequate opportunity for input.  They have been studying the project intensely for months with the general concept on the table for several years. Now is the time for action, they say. If doing what is right in their opinion now means getting thrown out of office in their next election, all three say they are okay with that.

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