Jail opponents continue efforts

Published 10:31 am Friday, May 15, 2009

Dissidents who unsuccessfully petitioned the Mower County Board of Commissioners to hold a voter referendum on issuing bonds to build a new jail have more questions to ask.

This time, they are asking the Minnesota attorney general for an opinion and using the same statute cited by the county as the basis for their queries.

Stephen J. Smith, an attorney with the Owatonna law firm of Smith, Tollefson & Rahrick, has written the Minnesota attorney general on behalf of Dan Vermilyea.

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The attorney asks the attorney general, “If the (Mower) County has not levied a sufficient tax to provide for all necessary funds for construction of a jail, and has not yet issued county bonds, can any contract be made for construction of a county jail?

“And if a such a contract has been made and construction is already underway, is such a contract invalid?”

On behalf of his client, attorney Smith notes, “The question is important, as we understand construction is already underway, bids have been accepted and we believe contracts have been entered into.”

“No bonds however have been issued; we understand the intent is to issue them later this year,” Smith concludes.

The letter is addressed specifically to Angela Skarda, citizen research specialist for Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Vermilyea is identified as a member of the Mower County Taxpayers League. Vermilyea and Tony Bennett submitted a petition with more than 900 signatures to the Mower County Board of Commissioners requesting a hearing be held to decide whether a voter referendum on the jail bonds issue should be held.

The county board, acting on advice from Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen, who reaffirmed what the county’s special legal counsel, Stephanie Galey, determined to be true, rejected the petition request March 16, the same day the commissioners awarded contracts for the project.

A subsequent and separate action by citizen James Hartson, rural Waltham, disputed the commissioners’ action April 28, and the statute the county based its decision upon to proceed with the jail/justice center project.

Again, Nelsen, citing Galey’s opinion, affirmed the commissioners’ decision.

According to Smith’s letter dated Thursday, Skarda previously supplied information on the bonding issue to Vermilyea May 1.

That letter came after Vermilyea wrote Nelsen April 21, asking for a written response to the Vermilyea-Bennette petition request.

Mower County has relied upon Minnesota Statute Section 641.23, according to Smith, to support its belief that no bond referendum need be held.

However, Smith, quoting the statute directly, observed it reads: “Before any contract is made for the erection of a county jail … the county board shall either levy a sufficient tax to provide the necessary funds, or issue county bonds therefor in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 475.”

Mower County has issued $10-million in leave revenue bonds authorized by the Mower County Housing and Redevelopment Authority for the construction of the justice center only portion of the project.

Bids for project

Bids were accepted and contracts awarded to begin construction of the two-story, 128-bed county jail and justice center.

Two blocks of downtown property acquired by the city of Austin have been cleared, and footings are being poured for the new facilities.

A third block was acquired by the county for a geothermal well field to heat/cool the jail/justice center. It, too, has been cleared of all buildings and soil preparation is underway for the geothermal well field.

KKE Architects, Inc., the county’s architect firm of record, estimated the cost of the new facilities at $30.7 million.

The county commissioners have repeatedly stated over the last 12 months, they would place a ceiling of $27-million on construction of the new facilities.

According to Smith, the entire amount of the construction costs “have not yet been levied in taxes or underwritten by actually-issued bonds.”

The Owatonna attorney has also written the Mower County Attorney, asking Nelsen if “procedural requirements,” originally mentioned by Galey April 20, as the county’s intent to perform, were, in fact, followed to the letter of the law and according to Minnesota Statute 641.23.

Craig Oscarson, county coordinator, said the twin letters, both mailed Thursday, would have to be reviewed by the Mower County attorney before comment could be made on the county’s behalf.

The letters were also unknown to any member of the Mower County Board of Commissioners, when this story was written.

Copies of the letters were made available to the Austin Daily Herald Thursday.