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Guest Commentary: ‘Option 4’ saves county money in jail discussion

By Lora Walker, Chisago County commissioner, Dist. 1

At the July 1 Chisago County commissioners meeting, we voted 4-1 to design a new jail complex, complete with new staff offices for the sheriff’s department. At the same meeting, I presented the board with an alternative plan (Option 4) for housing our inmates by utilizing existing nearby jails in other counties at a reduced cost to Chisago County taxpayers.

As a policy analyst, concerned about overall spending across county departments, I felt a need to research this option after staff neglected to present it to the County Board. Another option requested was a jail-only facility, without new staff offices, but that also was not presented.

I attended the jail committee meeting July 20 to learn how staff evaluated the Option 4 plan. Unfortunately, the committee voted to continue with design plans to build a new jail (Option 1), even though the financial analysis left quite a few relevant costs out of this plan, such as annual building utility costs, hiring a financial adviser and hiring a lobbyist to ask for state tax money.

We tried and failed to get state funding last session for a jail. This session we will be competing with the Department of Corrections’ proposed expansion of 500 beds at the Rush City prison. It seems unlikely the Legislature will pay for our county jail over the need for more beds at the prison.

It was very encouraging that staff confirmed the savings in Option 4. In fact, it was predicted that annual savings would last 10 years or longer depending on staffing costs. One fact was explicitly clear — each day our jail remains open we are losing money.

Plenty of debate has occurred over what to do and how much money to spend on inmates over the next 20 years. Option 4 was presented to reduce spending immediately, but it can be viewed to solve our need for another decade, without any additional cost. This was confirmed with financial analysis performed by county staff.

The jail committee chair in his recent editorial misstated that “Option 4 only works if we assume that neither Chisago County’s population nor our (Average Daily Population of inmates) ADP will increase over the next 20 years.” However, staff analysis provided to his committee outlined very realistic assumptions that population increases as well as boarding fee inflationary increases were factored. The inflation-factored rates change from $55 per day to $68 per day and the inmate count increases from 70 to 100 people based on population projections. In fact, if one read the document, it clearly summarized that only after 10 years does out-of-county boarding cost exceed what we are spending right now in 2015 to operate our jail.

I cannot, with a good conscience, vote to build a jail that will waste taxpayer money each year for a decade. Putting it into perspective, funding has been reduced in other county departments, county roads were turned back to townships and cities and hundreds of miles of county roads that residents use daily remain in need of repair.

In about 10 years, neighboring jails will need to be replaced. Option 4 saves Chisago County money while research can occur with counties in our region on the possibility of building a shared facility. This would eliminate duplicate expenses and reduce administrative costs of multiple counties each building and staffing their own jail facility. This regional model has proven successful in other areas of our state, and there are clear efficiencies when governments work together.

The amount repeatedly stated for a new law enforcement center/jail is $24 million; half of that amount to be asked for from the state Legislature. Documents provided by staff to the jail committee now show an actual cost of $31.4 million for the facility that four commissioners have voted to pursue. Let us not forget that the county already spent $9 million to purchase land, hire professional jail planners, etc., and up to $2 million is committed to be spent for new jail plans. My calculator reads a total cost of $42.4 million.

If you are told we are saving money by building a smaller jail, feel free to remind your commissioner that the numbers tell a different story.


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A proven leader for Chisago County, Lora Walker is committed to providing responsible leadership, guiding Chisago County into the future with vision, while respecting it's heritage.

We should seek to develop; not just grow in size. A delicate balance of affordable homes, provision of services to residents, reliable roads and accessible bridges, increased local employment, schools and retail, are all key to a successful, vibrant community. A community our children can look forward to living in 25 years from now. Working for the common good, as your Commissioner, I will continue to advocate for a community that is balanced and sustainable. 

We don't often talk about our County's financial position. I feel we must meet citizen's needs without taxing them out of their homes.  I understand the impact of taxes on families and businesses and the importance of government spending within its means, and have worked hard toward that goal.  

My work led the way with NO county levy increases 6-years in a row and tax levy DECREASES the past 2-years!  My service on the County Budget Committee produced strong fiscal management resulting in our county bond rating being upgraded twice in recent years, saving many thousands of dollars in bond interest payments.

I have supported fiscal policies that cut waste, prioritized needs, and fulfilled State and Federal mandates.  We deserve action-oriented, independent leadership; I believe I offer that leadership.                                        

"Keep the Unity in our Community"


Representing Chisago County District 1

North Branch C, Chisago City, Lent Township, and North Chisago Lakes Township

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