by Scott DCamp
Pennington County residents can expect a double-digit tax increase if the proposed $17 million justice center is constructed. However, over time, taxpayers may be faced with an even bigger property tax increase if nothing is done.
During a special Pennington County Board meeting on Thursday, June 16, a case was made that it would be slightly less expensive in the long-run to build a new justice center than to “Band-Aid” the many problems that exist at the Pennington County Jail. That is based on an annual debt service of $1,161,277 over 20 years to pay off $16 million in jail and general obligation bonds, compared to an estimated annualized cost of not building at $1,163,769.
For more than a decade, Pennington County has been looking for ways to improve its courtroom security, while also addressing its space needs. The City Auditorium and Old Arena were acquired from the city of Thief River Falls to allow for courthouse expansion, but no action was ever taken. Last summer, plans for a justice center that is connected to the existing Law Enforcement Center building were re-introduced after the idea was first discussed in 2006.
“It’s taken us a while to get here,” said Commissioner Darryl Tveitbakk.
Pennington County is considering the construction of a justice center for a variety of reasons, including overall space requirements at the jail, operational efficiency, public safety, court safety, staff safety, liability concerns and compliance with Department of Corrections.
The existing LEC, which includes the medium and maximum security portions of the jail, opened in 1976. During his presentation, Tveitbakk noted that the LEC/jail is one of the six oldest un-renovated facilities in Minnesota.
The 40-year-old jail has outlived its 25-year useful life and its linear design is both a security and liability concern of the DOC. The jail’s control center is located in dispatch with no direct line of sight to inmates.
The facility has severe space constraints. The former Intoxilyzer room is now used for storage of inmate clothing, possessions and supplies. Inmate lockers are kept in an emergency exit hallway. The former recreation room has been converted into an eight-bed medium security housing unit and the original programming room has been converted into two holding cells. Meanwhile, the original 10-by-15 attorney/inmate conference room has become a multi-purpose room that serves as the jail library, activity/recreation room, and meeting room for medical care and attorney or probation conferences.
In March, the DOC conducted its most recent and most-condemning inspection of the Pennington County Jail. Here are some notes from that inspection:
• The design of the jail is poor. It has a dysfunctional layout that is staff-intensive and lacks in security.
• The facility does not have adequate recreation space. This is a physical plant issue that cannot be resolved without a major remodel.
• With the physical plant design and limited beds, Pennington County does not have the ability for proper classification and separation of inmates.
During the inspection, it was determined that Pennington County complied with 113 of 119 mandatory duties and 90 of 95 essential duties. As a corrective action, the DOC ordered that jail staff should discontinue doing any duties that disrupt jail operations and that could potentially cause security issues. The DOC also noted that “staffing levels play a critical part in staff not being able to complete well-being checks in a timely manner, but it is imperative that all inmates are observed in the mandatory time frame.”
Other areas of concern include the well-being of special needs inmates. The number of special needs inmates has increased throughout the state. Special needs inmates require higher staff interaction and can be more demanding on staff time. Because of the existing space limitations and demand on staff, the DOC recommended that all inmates be housed in other facilities.
The DOC also stated that the addition of staff will not be enough to keep Pennington County from being reclassified from a one-year facility to a 90-day facility.
The DOC found fault with the LEC/Jail’s heating and cooling system, noting that it is too antiquated to provide proper ventilation, heating and cooling. The existing unit is straight electric, which was a popular choice 40 years ago but is a much more expensive option to maintain today.
The DOC also found fault with the jail’s visitation space, the age of the manual locks – some of which need to be replaced with keypad locks and the condition of security electronics.
Another area of concern among the DOC, court system and Pennington County Attorney’s Office is courtroom security and security of inmates as they are transported from jail cells to the courthouse for court appearances. Currently, jail staff or sheriff’s deputies are responsible for transporting as many as 11 inmates at a time across First Street to the courthouse.
Inmates enter the courthouse through a public entrance, take a public staircase to the third floor and enter the courtroom through the same hallway that families, officers and court staff use on their way to court. This presents potential problems with contraband, witness intimidation and even escape. The new courtroom space is designed to have separate entrances and waiting areas for inmates and witnesses.
Justice Center bids
Pete Filippi of The Contegrity Group presented an updated project budget based on the bids received on May 18. As of now, the project is more than $600,000 under its original estimated cost. The bids included multiple alternates, including one where contractors had to estimate how much their bid would increase if prevailing wage was required. Filippi said only one low bidder would change due to prevailing wage, which would only be a requirement if state bonding money is obtained.
The cost of doing nothing
With taxes seeming to go up at least 3 percent every year, it would be easy to suggest putting off the construction of a jail indefinitely. However, according to Contegrity estimates, waiting a year doesn’t really buy the county more time. Based on 4 percent inflation, the current $17.3 million proposed justice center would cost $18 million to build in 2017; $18.7 million to build in 2018; $19.5 million to build in 2019; and $20.3 million to build in 2020.
Filippi said these are conservative estimates. He noted that the number of detention contractors is shrinking nationwide, which means there will be more demand and more expense if the county delays construction of the justice center.
Continuing with the existing jail and court operations as they currently stand will also cost taxpayers. Contegrity estimates that there are roughly $575,664.72 worth of improvements to be made in the jail annex over the next 10 years; and another $1.5 million in improvements to be made to the medium/maximum security jail. Annualized, these come to about $208,000 per year.
Staffing levels are also expected to increase as the jail becomes a 90-day facility. It is estimated that county will need to hire three new deputies to handle transports at a base cost of $75,000 per deputy; five additional corrections officers at a base cost of $65,000 per corrections officer; and a new dispatch/administrative position at a base cost of $60,000. Annually, including salaries and benefits, these new positions are expected to add $610,000 to the county budget.
Inmate housing costs are also expected to increase significantly if the county is classified as a 90-day facility. Based on the current population, the county is housing an average of 10 inmates in other counties on a daily basis. At a cost of $55 per day, per inmate, this is costing the county $200,750 per year – and that number could double if the county is reduced to a 90-day facility.
Contegrity also estimates that the county is spending $61,776 per year in transportation costs to transport inmates – as far as Douglas County – for available jail bed space.
Overall, the annualized cost of doing nothing is estimated at $1,163,769
Ron Solheid, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota DOC, said there is a clear need for a new jail in Pennington County. He said the annex was built at a time when the jail was full. It was viewed as a stopgap facility, until a new jail could be built.
Solheid said the existing jail is worn out and it has a poor design. He called it a major liability for the county.
“The county has been put on notice for not meeting minimum standards,” Solheid said. “Well-being checks are not being done in a timely manner.
“If we put you on notice for four years and nothing happens, some of the liability starts to shift to us. It is completely worn out. It can’t function as a one-year jail. That’s why we have the 90-day classification on the table.”
Solheid continued, saying that the county has very little programming for rehabilitation to reduce recidivism.
“It’s just not a situation that we can continue to have here,” Solheid said.
When asked by commissioners about the new jail, Solheid confirmed that he worked with Contegrity on the design to ensure that it meets DOC requirements.
Chairman Don Jensen said that he, along with Tveitbakk, had made several trips to the state capitol to lobby for the construction of a justice center in Pennington County.
“They chose not to fund this,” Jensen said. “It makes us wonder why the state wouldn’t want to protect its employees.”
Lead Architect Bruce Schwartzman responded that three other counties went before the state for bonding support and none of the three were funded either.
Solheid added that the DOC also went before the state, seeking bonding money to add 500 prison beds statewide and was also turned down.
“We didn’t get anything either,” Solheid said. “Those prisoners are now boarded out in county jails.”
Cost to taxpayers
If commissioners choose to go forward with the justice center project, Pennington County will bond for $16.8 million of the estimated $17.8 million justice center.
Auditor-Treasurer Ken Olson said the levy would increase by about 14 percent over its current amount based on a 20-year bond. A 25-year bond would result in a 12 percent increase and a 30-year bond would result in an 11 percent increase.
The proposed justice center includes office space for the county attorney and both assistant attorneys, court administration, judges, a new county board room, two full-size courtrooms that can handle a jury trial, and a new jail that would hold a maximum of 94 inmates, with four holding cells that do not count toward the 94 total. The inmate breakdown is up to 56 maximum security, 28 male work release and 10 female work release.
The proposed jail would be more efficient than the existing jail. With its pod design, the ratio of corrections officers to inmates is one corrections officer for every 40 inmates, compared to a 1 to 25 ratio for the existing jail.
The tax impact, using payable 2016 taxable net tax capacity for Pennington County using a 20-year bond, would be a $61 annual increase for a $100,000 home; $107 for a $150,000 home; $153 for a $200,000 home; $200 for a $250,000 home; and $246 for a $300,000 home. A seasonal property worth $75,000 will see an increase of $64 per year.
Commercial and residential properties will see a $127 increase for a property valued at $100,000; a $191 increase for a property valued at $150,000; $361 for a $250,000 property; $785 for a $500,000 property; $1,634 for a $1 million property; $8,423 for a $5 million property; and $16,909 for a $10 million property.
Apartment complexes valued at $500,000 will see a property tax increase of $530 per year. A $1 million complex will see an increase of $1,061 per year; and a $10 million complex will see an increase of $10,608 per year.
Based on a valuation of $2,000 per acre, agricultural homestead properties will see an increase ranging from $129 for 80 acres to $624 for 640 acres.
Also based on a valuation of $2,000 per acre, agricultural non-homestead properties will see an increase that is slightly less than $1.70 per acre. An 80-acre property would see a property tax increase of $136 per year, while the property taxes for a 640-acre property would increase by $1,086 per year.
No action was taken. A decision must be made by Friday, July 1. The next regular meeting of the Pennington County Board of Commissioners is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 28.