County responds to citizens’ jail inquiries

Published 10:04 am Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen has summed up the county’s response to citizens’ inquiries about new jail and justice center funding in 21 words.

It is two sentences that read, “I have reviewed your correspondence dated May 14, 2009. It is Mower County’s position that we have complied with the statutes,” Nelsen noted in a letter dated May 20.

The letter was sent to Stephen Smith, an Owatonna attorney, and Angela Skarda, an attorney who works as a citizens research specialist in Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office.

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Smith was retained by the Mower County Tax Payers League to represent them during their efforts to question whether Mower County is following the correct Minnesota Statute in financing the jail and justice center project.

Ten million dollars in leave revenue bonds were issued late last year and applied to this year’s personal property taxes to fund the justice center-only portion of the project.

The commissioners later took bids and awarded contracts for construction of the jail portion of the project as well as a geothermal well field to heat and cool the facilities in downtown Austin.

Work is currently underway on all three portions of the largest capital improvements project in Mower County history.

Jail overcrowding and court security issues were originally given as reasons for the new facilities. More recently, Mower County’s jail has been downgraded by the Minnesota Department of Corrections into a 90-day lockup, forcing the county to board-out more prisoners to neighboring counties’ jails.

The county commissioners, relying upon the advice of Nelsen and Stephanie Galey, a bonding attorney, have consistently said to all critics they believe they are following the correct Minnesota Statute and acting legally to take bids and award contracts before issuing bonds — i.e., having the money in the bank — to build the new jail and geothermal well field.

The Mower County Tax Payers League petitioned the commissioners to hold a hearing on the financing plan for the benefit of citizens only to be rebuffed by Nelsen and the county commissioners.

When the Mower County Tax Payers League was rejected by county officials and staff in its attempts to force a hearing on the statute accusations, it went to the Minnesota Attorney General for assistance through attorney Smith.

The Mower County Tax Payers League’s last letters to Nelsen and the attorney general were mailed on May 14 and shared with local media that same day. Nelsen, however, was out of town and not available for comment.

Mower County coordinator Craig Oscarson was presented with copies of the letters May 14, but referred all comment to Nelsen.

The Mower County Tax Payers League’s response to Nelsen’s 21-word statement suggested they are not satisfied.

“In our letter to the county attorney, Mower County asked her to let us know if our assumptions were in error (as to whether the contracts had been signed, no levy made for full cost, and no bonds yet issued),” the response began. “She did not respond.

“I think it is safe to assume that they have not issued the bonds, and have not levied for the full costs of the jail,” the statement continued. “We already know that contracts have been entered into.”

The objections of one member of the Mower County Tax Payers League, Tony Bennett, were blunt.

“Citizens do not get to decide what laws they comply with, and what laws they can ignore,” he said. “Government should at least be held to the same standard as citizens; in fact, they should be held to higher standards.”

Dan Vermilyea, rural Austin, said, “They’ve challenged us to sue them.

“We’re very confident they have not followed procedures according to Minnesota Statutes.”

According to Bennett, “The Mower County government is deciding that it can take a specific law (that is, a specific section of Minnesota Statutes) and hide behind part of it, while ignoring the other part. They rely upon the law for their belief that no referendum is required. Yet they ignore the first part of the statute, which clearly states that construction contracts should not be made unless the full amount of the project is levied or bonds have actually been issued.”

The requirement that the money be available through a levy or from issued bonds, is not simply a trivial or formal requirement, according to Bennett.

“Last year, the municipal bond market locked up entirely,” he said. “There is no guarantee that this will not happen again. We do not know what effect unallotment by the governor will have on LGA or other parts of county budgets, or what other surprises the economy may bring. We do not know if the bonds will be sold. It is speculative to assume an issue will be successful.”

County administrators and finance directors in Steele and Freeborn counties told the Austin Daily Herald they did their own jail and justice center projects the way Mower County is doing its own: With a split bond issue.

In Freeborn County’s case, contractor “estimates” were collected before bonds were sold and contracts awarded, according to county staff.

The Mower County Tax Payers League’s petition drive attracted more than 900 signatures from citizens wanting a second look or the required by statue look at the jail and justice center financing.

Bennett and Vermilyea have been the only two citizens to continue publicly to wage the battle.

Bennett said he is on a mission.

“Civic virtues (personal habits and attitudes that are conducive to social harmony and group well being) can only flourish when people are willing to defend their own interests,” he said. “Until the interests of the people take precedence over the interests of the politically articulate, the tail will continue to wag the dog.”

However, the pair may be running out of options, Vermilyea said.

“The options we have available to us are to ask them to prove they’re right in a lawsuit or to say ‘We’re done,’” Vermilyea said.