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Boreal Community Media

Proposed public safety center not about building a bigger jail

Feb 22, 2019 12:12PM ● By Editor

Many people have questions about the proposed “jail project” that’s being explored in Cook County, and there is a lot of misinformation out there. To heighten understanding, we’d like to review what’s been done to date and next steps, as well as include citizens in this process as the Cook County Board of Commissioners decides what the right solution is for this community.

Why are we exploring an improved jail and public safety center?

The purpose of the recent study was to determine long-term needs for the county jail and Law Enforcement Center to address service delivery for the next 20 years and beyond.

The current jail is only classified by the Minnesota Department of Corrections as a 72-hour holding facility, and there is inadequate programming space, dispatch, and office space. Cook County is paying to house inmates in other counties and transporting them.

The study provided recommendations to determine what is needed for a jail facility that would safely house detainees long-term. The study examined current practices and solicited feedback on what improvements, if any, were needed as the county considers a long-term holding facility.

All parties agree that any expansion of jail operations should provide separate space for inmates with mental health or medical issues – something that does not currently exist.

What’s been done? A timeline of the project to date

In June 2017, the county released an RFP to conduct a County Jail Facility Assessment & Master Plan. In November 2017, Wold Architects and Engineers (Wold) was awarded the contract to complete the study, a core planning group was established, and work began.

Early 2018, department level surveys and interviews were conducted, and a preliminary space analysis was developed.

May 2018, a workshop was held with the county board to further examine the overall space needs of the jail and public safety, as well as the rest of county operations. Wold then presented preliminary findings at the May committee of the whole meeting to determine the scope of possible recommendations.

The study examined the county’s overall space needs and many potential options, including building a new Justice Center that would incorporate the county attorney’s office, court services and probation, sheriff ’s office, 911 Center, and the jail along with other public safety operations. With fiscal responsibility as one of the guiding principles of the study and at an estimated price tag above $10 million, the county board said no to that early on, as well as exploring other options to build new.

August 2018, a summary of the Master Plan report to-date was presented to the board. The plan included jail statistics, space analysis, and operational analysis of jail costs. The board approved the recommendation of the study to continue with the investigation of a project to convert our current 72-hour-hold facility to a full 12-month county jail, meeting all Department of Corrections standards.

November 2018, John McNamara of Wold and I (Sheriff Eliasen), presented a summary of the final findings of the study which included a review of the process, the current facility, and future alternatives. The core planning group worked with Wold to determine a recommendation of the conversion of the current Class I (72- hour) County Jail to a full Class III County Jail as part of a renovated Public Safety Center on the existing site. After discussion, the board approved the contract with Wold to begin Phase 1 of the Schematic Design Process in the first quarter of 2019, to further study the jail expansion and undergo more analysis of the financial forecasts – which is where we are now.

What is a schematic design?

Schematic design is the first phase of project planning.

This is where the project requirements and goals are determined, and the architect starts with rough conceptual drawings that illustrate the basic concepts of the design, to put a finer point on needs and help determine actual costs. There are many more decision points ahead.

Wold’s operational analysis summary states that it would cost less annually to operate a full County Jail than to continue housing prisoners out of the county. The county will be retiring debt service in 2020 and could finance this project starting in 2021, without an increase in property tax levy. We are moving into the schematic design portion of the work to fine-tune options and costs. More detailed information is required including a comprehensive analysis of the financial forecasts and to determine if the projections confirm no more tax levy burden and what the bond obligations would be. This information is part of the schematic and detailed design phases to come. The schematic design does not mean it is a done deal, but there is support to explore the recommendation further and determine the appropriate public safety/ jail needs for Cook County.

Next steps and public engagement opportunities

A status update presentation on the proposed Public Safety Center Schematic Design will be made to the county board this Tuesday, February 26. A public information session on the project will be held on Thursday, March 21, at 6 p.m., at the courthouse. Everyone is encouraged to attend.

The idea of hosting a guided public tour of our current jail and Law Enforcement Center is also being explored. Over the last several months, I have extended invitations for citizens to contact me with any questions on the proposed project. To date, just one person has contacted the sheriff ’s office with questions. That invitation still stands.

To review Wold’s Final Master Plan and documents related to the project, go to www.co.cook.mn.us/jailstudy

County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service