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.