Jail petition circulating

Published 1:08 pm Saturday, March 14, 2009

Asking the Mower County Commissioners to reconsider their actions on the precipice of accepting bids to build a new jail and justice center may be an idea whose time has come too late.

Or, is it?

The county board meets Monday afternoon to consider accepting apparent low bids to build a new two-story, 128-bed jail and justice center.

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A group of concerned citizens is prepared to present a petition to the county commissioners asking they delay their action on the bids and hold a referendum to let Mower County citizens decide.

Tony Bennett, an Austin businessman who ran unsuccessfully for Austin City Council last November, supports the initiative although he said he did not start the petition drive.

“I would only say people in Austin started the petition drive Thursday and already there is an awful lot of interest and support,” Bennett said Friday afternoon. “There’s interest in Austin, of course, but there’s also a lot of interest throughout Mower County.”

Kelly Williams is another supporter of the petition.

“In my opinion, I would like to see the voters have a say in what’s going to happen.”

“The commissioners are elected to represent the people who elected them,” Williams said.

Kyle Klaehn is another supporter of the petition drive.

Pointing to the depressed economy and the county’s own need to cut spending to offset the impact of the state budget deficit on local government, Klaehn said: “The time is not right, when they’re now cutting programs and employees to stay in the black.”

Klaehn said he also worries how the county will be able to afford operating the new jail when it is open.

That’s the worry of another petition supporter, Dan Vermilyea.

The rural Austin resident was an unsuccessful candidate for a seat on the Mower County Board last November. He has been a critic of unnecessary government spending and only last Tuesday personally asked the county commissioners to rescind the 3 percent pay hike they gave all elected officials in January.

Vermilyea, a resident of Mower County, works in Steele County, where he gathered information on the costs to operate the new Steele County jail.

According to Vermilyea’s research, Steele County had operating expenses for its 150-bed jail of $3.48 million in 2007.

When debt service on the bonds needed to pay for construction of the new jail were considered, along with other expenses, the total costs rose to $4,466,675.

“Where are we going to get that kind of money to operate our jail?” Vermilyea wanted to know.

And Vermilyea also asked if simply building a new jail and justice center ensures public safety. “We need to look at this as a safety issue,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves will be feel any safer five years from now when we have a new jail and justice center?”

Supporters of the petition are pinning their hopes on convincing the commissioners to delay accepting any bids to building the new facilities on a portion of state statutes reading:

“(c) A county may issue the bonds only upon obtaining the approval of a majority of the voters voting on the question of issuing the obligations, if a petition requesting a vote on the issuance is signed by voters equal to five percent of the votes cast in the county in the last general election and is filed with the county auditor within 30 days after the public hearing. The commissioner of revenue shall prepare a suggested form of the question to be presented at the election.”

Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said county officials have reviewed state statutes, including the one mentioned by the petition supporters, and believe they are correct in handling it without voter referendum input.

“We need to respect their right to file a petition,” Oscarson said at the outset of his defense of county commissioners Friday afternoon. “We also need to find out what they are actually stating by statute, because as we developed the funding for this project, we hired an attorney who is an expert in this area and found there are several instruments the board can use to borrow money for projects.”

“We’re using two instruments that, according to our attorney, do not require a public vote,” Oscarson said.

The county commissioners researched the legalities of handling the financing of the jail and justice center project as the time of taking bids drew nearer. “We did that way back when the project was developed too far down the road,” he said.

Both the special bonding legal counsel and the Northland Securities firm affirmed the commissioners could act without a vote of the public.

Bennett campaigned for a seat on the Austin City Council as a fiscal conservative and those interests, including the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce, who called a new jail and justice center in downtown Austin “vital to the city’s economy, know Bennett is serious when he speaks about unnecessary spending and government accountability.

“Our nation is facing a serious economic crisis,” he said. “The citizens of Mower County are no exception. An 18 percent property tax increase is excessive in a good economy. In today’s economy it can be devastating.”

When the Mower County commissioners received bids March 4, they said they were “pleasantly surprised.”

The original $36 million estimated costs to build the new jail and justice center had been trimmed to $30.7 million as contractors desperate for work gave the county low-ball figures.

Because an estimated 51 percent of the work could go to local contractors, that was welcome news for the depressed Austin economy.

The city has purchased two city blocks of downtown property and the county has purchased a third.

All three will be needed for the proposed new jail and justice center project.

Beginning at 1 p.m. Monday, the commissioners will decide to proceed and award contracts or — the petition-signers hope — ask taxpayers for their final input.

The commissioners have heard every argument there is to be made about the project and Oscarson has too.

The county coordinator will be waiting to deflect criticism on at least on aspect of the project: Once it’s built, how do we pay for operating the new jail?

“The current budget for the jail is $1.9 million,” he said. “Of that amount we have an $800,000 line item for boarding prisoners.”

“What our hope is that $800,000 should almost if not fully cover all the increase in operating costs,” he said. “We hope the majority of the new (jail) staff are already in the budget.”

The petition is being passed around Mower County. Banks, bars, gas stations, elevators, groceries and convenience stores — everywhere.

Bennett, Williams, Klaehn and Vermilyea all sound serious about their intentions — particularly Bennett.

“The commissioners have not provided compelling evidence of a need for a $31 million facility,” he said. “Other options are available and the public should be able to decide whether or not they want to carry this large tax burden for the next 30 years.”