Proposed jail and justice center still not settled

Published 10:22 am Thursday, November 20, 2008

The proposed new Mower County Jail and Justice Center project was reviewed Wednesday afternoon.

Representatives from the city of Austin and Mower County met at the Austin Housing and Redevelopment Authority offices to share items of mutual interest. Craig Oscarson, county coordinator, said bids for the project are expected to be taken in January 2009 and opened a month later. A contract for the project could be awarded as early as March 2009.

If construction begins in April 2009, building will take an estimated 16 months, according to Oscarson. Afterwards another three months will be needed to move into the new facilities, which should be ready for use in August 2010. Austin City Council Member Norman Hecimovich (Third Ward) questioned staffing of the new 128-bed jail and Oscarson told him the working number is 31 or 32 jail employees.

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Presently, there are 14-18 detention officers staffing the current 35 prisoner maximum jail, which operates with a functional capacity of 28 prisoners.

All other offenders sentenced to incarceration are housed in jails at Mitchell County, Osage, Iowa, Freeborn County, Albert Lea, Steele County, Owatonna, and Oak Park Heights.

Hecimovich pointed out, “Those jails in Freeborn County and Steele County are new, but only half full of prisoners.”

At this point in the discussion, Dick Lang, Fourth District Mower County Commissioner, said, “You’re going to lose this project if the bids come in over our cost estimates for the project.”

“This has me real concerned,” Lang said. “The board is looking at decreases in the costs; not increases.”

Oscarson said the county has budgeted $500,000 a year for boarding out prisoners at other incarceration facilities.

Craig Hoium, the city’s planning director, updated officials and staff on progress in clearing two blocks of downtown property for the jail and justice center.

According to Hoium, the owners of Steve’s Pizza and Anytime Fitness Center lost efforts in Mower County District Court to avoid condemnation proceedings after it was asserted acquiring the properties and demolishment them was a legitimate public purpose.

It is likely, demolition efforts will continue to work around the buildings as well as the former Palacio Del Cumbia building complex.

The county’s present plan calls for the new wo-story structure to extend from Second Avenue Northeast to the north edge of Third Avenue Northeast, a one-block portion of which will be vacated. The remaining property from Third Avenue to Fourth Avenue Northeast would be used by the county for parking and future expansion needs, according to Oscarson.

The last tenants in apartments above the former Palacio Del Cumbia have moved from the building, according to Hoium.

The owners of all three holdout properties must vacate their buildings no later than March 1, 2009.

That would leave underground utilities work beneath Third Avenue Northeast for Austin Utilities.

Soil corrections and other site preparation work for the new facilities could begin before the three holdouts are gone, according to Oscarson.

The officials and staff discussed proposed property tax levies to be examined at upcoming Truth In Taxation hearings.

James Hurm, city administrator, said the city’s proposed property tax levy shows a seven percent increase.

Oscarson said the county’s shows a 3.9 percent proposed increase for general operations.

Pressed for a further explanation by Sara Douty, Austin Main Street Project coordinator, Oscarson admitted the total proposed property tax levy increase will be 21.7 percent when the jail and justice center project’s expenses are included.

“Our goal is to get it below 20 percent,” Oscarson said.

The county coordinator candidly admitted if the county board rejects bids for the project, the options are: 1) Build a jail only; 2) Leave the two blocks empty; and 3) Board out prisoners.

That would still require the county to spend the $10 million in lease-revenue bonds it approved a week ago to be used on construction of court facilities.

Oscarson said the commissioners are looking closely at all ways to reduce project costs.

“We will use existing furniture wherever possible in the new facilities,” he said.

The county will be unable to move existing courtroom furniture to the new facility. However, furniture in the judges’ chambers will be moved into the new facility.

The county board will hold a jail and justice center project management meeting at 9 a.m. Friday in the commissioners’ meeting room.

The periodic joint city-county meetings are another effort of officials and staffs to communicate with each other. No official action can be taken at the discussion-only sessions.