The county’s new face of justice

Published 2:56 pm Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Jail and Justice Center is complete after years of debate.

It took more than 16 months of construction and about a decade of discussion, but the Mower County Jail and Justice Center is scheduled to open soon.

“Hoorah,” Commissioner Dick Lang said. “That sums up everything. It’s been a long, long process. Well worked on, well thought out.”

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That sentiment was mirrored by Commissioner Ray Tucker.

“I’m glad it’s over,” he said. “It was a long, dragged out affair.”

The close of construction ends one of the largest projects in the county’s history. The project is expected to be completed at a final cost of about $28 million, which is lower than the $35.4 million budgeted before the project was bid out.

“This was the largest undertaking Mower County has ever done, and we’re coming in on time and on budget,” Tucker said. “It should be a real good service to the people of Mower County.”

Lang said it was needed for public safety in the community. Commissioner David Hillier noted that the building is not outlandish and it will be very functional into the future.

“I think the public will see that it’s an ordinary office building,” Hillier said. “It’s new, it’s clean, it’s fresh, but yet it’s a very ordinary office building. I think the public money was used wisely.”

Tucker noted that the building will be a strong improvement for downtown Austin, and it’ll be beneficial to keep the offices downtown in one spot.

‘It got pretty ugly’

The jail and justice center project stems back about a decade to when Sheriff Gary Simonson requested the National Institute of Corrections complete a study on the old jail, which was built in the 1960s.

The study found the jail to be outdated, too small and in danger of closing in the future. The county had to decide to build a new jail or permanently house inmates at other facilities.

According to County Coordinator Craig Oscarson, Mower County currently has an $800,000 boarding budget to house inmates elsewhere.

According to Hillier, the board soon deemed a new jail would be the best option for the community.

“The department of corrections codes have changed, and it’s very evident to me that we needed more than a 90 day jail in this community,” Hillier said.

Many people called for the board to put the project up to a public vote, but Oscarson said statute does not require a referendum on such a project.

The board would decide to build the new jail along with a new court system to keep the two together for efficiency.

The debate then shifted to where to build. Many groups in the county and city had differing opinions of where and how the project should be built.

“It got pretty ugly,” Oscarson said.

There were two schools of thought concerning where the jail should be built: downtown or by the Austin Municipal Airport.

“Both sides had good arguments, and at the end of the day, the board decided to put it downtown,” Oscarson said.

The board would later vote 3-2 to build the jail downtown with Dave Tollefson, Dick Lang and Ray Tucker voting for the project and David Hillier and Dick Cummings voting against it.

Even with a split vote, Oscarson said the commissioners moved forward unified to complete the project.

“We’re lucky that we had board members who moved ahead,” Oscarson said.

A lingering issue

Though the building is finished, the debate on the project has recently filtered over into the fall campaigns. While most of the candidates said serious debate is done, some discussion is likely to continue.

“While the time for real debate regarding the justice center has come and gone, it’s now up to the voters to decide if the process was handled correctly,” Tony Bennett, who is challenging Lang in District 4, said via an e-mail.

With the project completed, the board has stressed the need to move forward and operate the building in an efficient manner.

“It’s here. Let’s run it as efficiently as we can,” said Commissioner Mike Ankeny, who was elected after former commissioner Dave Tollefson died.