VIDEO: Here comes the jail

Published 9:58 am Friday, May 1, 2009

“The destruction has gone on for six months now. Let the construction begin,” said Dave Tollefson at Thursday morning’s ground-breaking for the new Mower County Jail and Justice Center.

Tollefson, 5th District Mower County Commissioner and chairman of the county board, welcomed guests to the ceremonies held at the southeast corner of Second Avenue and First Street Northeast.

A new two-story, 128-bed jail and justice center will be built on two blocks of downtown property acquired by the city of Austin between Second and Fourth avenues and First and Second streets Northeast.

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A third block — Second to Third Avenues Northeast and First to Second Streets Northeast) was acquired and cleared by the county to make way for a geothermal well field to heat/cool the new jail and justice center.

Today, the Mower County Jail has been reduced to a 90-day lockup by the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the county has been forced to board-out prisoners in neighboring counties.

The county board appointed a jail task force to study the over-crowding issues eight years ago.

When the committee reached its conclusion, it recommended building a new jail and to move all related court, court administration, county attorney and correctional services offices to the same building.

The county board accepted the recommendation, but a protracted battle over the new facilities ensued until the county commissioners partnered with the city of Austin to locate it in the downtown area.

Wearing hard hats and armed with gold painted shovels, officials dug the ceremonial first scoops of dirt from the site, where the $30.7-million jail and justice center will be built.

A large crowd watched Thursday morning’s ceremonies unfold on a gray, fog-shrouded day.

Tollefson unseated incumbent 5th District county commissioner Garry Ellingson in 2006 after campaigning to locate the county facilities in downtown Austin, where the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce said it would be an economic boon.

“This project has been in the works for a long, long time,” he said.

Tollefson expressed appreciation on behalf of the county board to the city of Austin for “partnering with us.” In addition, he thanked the district court judges, county attorney, sheriff and others for being a part of a “once in a lifetime experience,” as he called it.

Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm began his remarks saying, “No one wants to spend millions to build a jail. No one wants to raise taxes.”

But Stiehm, a retired career Austin police detective, said the facilities will put a “new face on downtown Austin.”

District Judge Donald E. Rysavy expressed the appreciation of district court, court administration and others to the commissioners for ending the eight-year-long dialog over jail over-crowding and court security issues.

The new facilities, which will have three courtrooms for judges’ use, are expected to last for 50 years and have the capability of being expanded.

KKE Architects, Inc. and Knutson Construction Services, Inc. representatives also spoke.

One of the compelling factors in the county commissioners’ decision to proceed was the “attractive” bids for the project and the number of contracts awarded to Schammel Electric, Harty Mechanical Services and The Joseph Company, all local contractors.

The commissioners placed a ceiling of spending $27-million on the project, and the low bids received will help them realize that goal, they all have said.

The facilities are expected to be open sometime in late 2010.


Yes. Jim Hartson was there.

The out-spoken rural Waltham man, who has challenged the legality of the commissioners’ actions to ignore a petition request from citizens to hold a voter referendum on the issuance of bonds for the construction of the facilities, watched the ceremonies with others.

Juanita Morrison held a sign in protest.

The Austin woman said, “I’m here today just to register my opinion. I think a referendum should have went to the voters.”

Mower County officials and staff have repeatedly said they have relied on expert legal counsel to guide them through the process and their interpretation of statutes supports their stand on the “no hearing, no voter referendum” issues.

“I think it’s about time we’ve done something,” said Ellingson. “It had to be done sooner or later, one place or the other.”

“We just need to get on with the program and get it completed,” said Ellingson.

The former 5th District county commissioner supported building the new facilities, while in office. However, Ellingson originally favored building them at a green space site outside the Austin city limits.

As far as the rural Waltham man, Hartson’s objections, Ellingson said, “Jim is a farmer. His objections are kind of like closing the gate after the herd is out. They’re a little late.”

Among the spectators were Austin police chief Paul M. Philipp, Forrest Miller, Lyle-Mapleview police chief, Austin Third Ward Council Member Marian Clennon and Richard P. Cummings.

The latter retired from public office last year after serving 32 years on the Mower County Board of Commissioners.

He was there the day former Mower County Sheriff Barry J. Simsonon first brought jail-overcrowding to the attention of the commissioners in 2001.

After being a part of county government for so long, Cummings could only be a spectator at the ground-breaking for the largest capital improvement project in the history of Mower County.

“It’s a day that has been anticipated for many years,” Cummings said Thursday. “We didn’t know where it was going to be. Obviously, that decision finally came down in the last few months,” he said.

Also, a green space supporter, Cummings and Dave Hillier, 3rd District, lost their slim 3-2 majority (with Ellingson) when Tollefson defeated the incumbent.

The “downtowners” were Dick Lang, 4th District, and Tollefson, but it wasn’t until Ray Tucker, 2nd District, swung his support for a downtown site, that the green space option fell out of favor.

Tucker was credited with negotiating a deal with the city of Austin that saw the city give the county a $1.5-million grant, that the county eventually used to acquire the properties in the Robbins block

where the geothermal well field will be built.

The county had earlier given the city a $2.7-million grant for property acquisition in the two-blocks needed for the new facilities.

Cummings was resigned to the fate of the long, drawn out debate over where to build the jail and justice center.

“I’m glad to see that all of the meetings were not in vain or gone to waste,” he said.