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Friends, foes turn out on jail

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

McCOOK, Nebraska -- The McCook Planning Commission invited Red Willow County Commissioners to attend its meeting, Monday evening at Memorial Auditorium, and give a presentation on the Law Enforcement Center that is to be built on Norris Avenue.

The discussion between the two entities drew an attendance of more than 40 that crowded into City Council Chambers, with those in attendance seemingly split evenly between supporters and critics of the jail project.

Red Willow County Commissioner Earl McNutt recapped the timeline of the jail project that concluded with a jail task force recommending the county build a $5.1 million Law Enforcement Center and 24 bed jail facility next to the Red Willow County Courthouse, "and do it without a vote." McNutt said the new building will look like a large office building with no fences visible at all. "Even outdoor exercise is done within the confines of the new buildings," said McNutt, explaining that inmates would not be visible to the public and that the building would not look like a traditional jail facility from the outside.

McNutt said that the ballot issue in May will decide how the project is paid for and construction is anticipated to be completed in late 2013.

"We feel this is a very needed project and are trying to building something that will sustain Red Willow County for years to come. It is time for all of us to let our personal feelings be pushed aside and do what is best for the county and for all of us," said McNutt.

Planning Commission board member Chad Lyons said he was surprised by the 24 beds proposed for the new facility. "There are times when we need 24, times when we need five," said McNutt, adding that the facility is designed for expansion to 36 inmate beds without exterior expansion.

Planning Commission board member Dale Dueland cited numbers from the State Department of Jail Standards that he said showed a 10 year average of 7.6 inmates per day, adding that length of stay and inmate numbers had changed very little in Red Willow County in the last 10 years.

McNutt said you couldn't just rely on the average, "it's an up and down process, with lulls and highs and you have to be prepared to house that number."

Dueland asked McNutt and County Attorney Paul Wood if they were concerned with the example that they had set, describing it as an approach that encouraged citizens to seek loopholes in zoning ordinances instead of engaging in discussion with the Planning Commission.

County Attorney Paul Wood responded by saying, "Absolutely not, case law clearly states if you have power of eminent domain, zoning ordinances don't apply." Wood added that citizens do not have power of eminent domain.

Dueland argued that he was suspicious of using case law to govern planning regulations and zoning issues in the county and added that even state entities had approached the McCook Planning Commission in advance of constructing the Work Ethic Camp.

Dueland said several times throughout the meeting that he supported the construction of a new Red Willow County Jail, but criticized County Commissioners for several aspects of how the project has been handled. Dueland cited purchases of property that began in 2008 and demolition of structures on the properties that took place in 2010. "Why did it take so long to get here? If you're demolishing buildings you must have had some idea what you were doing with the property," said Dueland.

McNutt responded that until the final property piece was purchased nothing was finalized.

Dueland said the new building would look nice anywhere in town and argued that county commissioners should have consulted the community to get input on where citizens would prefer it be built. He also said he was concerned with what would happen if future over-crowding occurred at the Norris Avenue location.

McNutt responded that all of the county commissioner meetings were advertised and open to the public.

Citizens spoke up in support of the jail project, Johnny Hansen said the area had been in need of a jail for many years and Todd Cappel asked if the Planning Commission had targeted the same questions pertaining to parking and aesthetics at the City Municipal Facility, that was voter approved in 2010.

City Clerk Lea Ann Doak responded that the lot the city facility is being constructed on was not in violation of any city zoning ordinances. A jail built at the Norris Avenue location would however be in violation of the city zoning ordinances.

Linda Taylor voiced her concerns for what she deemed as scare tactics used by County Commissioners to garner support of the upcoming ballot vote, that will determine whether the Law Enforcement Center is financed within the county's current tax levy or in addition to it. "Hate for us to say if you don't vote for this you need to be afraid," said Taylor, referencing potential cuts to sexual assault services, the Humane Society and Economic Development that County Commissioners warned last week could occur if the ballot vote failed.

"The city jail facility just passed another inspection and is good for another year, couldn't we take a step back and look at what we are doing," asked Taylor. Taylor then cited census numbers that showed a decreasing population in the area which she believed was already causing taxes to increase on the rest of the population.

Former Red Willow County Court Judge Cloyd Clark said he was for the jail, but not the location, "I believe Heritage Square is a real thing." said Clark. Clark said Heritage Square was not just Ben Nelson's house and recapped several of the accomplishments of George Norris, including the Lame Duck amendment and the unicameral system in Nebraska. "It's a big deal, I think we should guard that," said Clark.

Red Willow County Sheriff Gene Mahon said he commended the actions of the Red Willow County Commissioners. "We have been extremely fortunate that we have not had a major incident prior to now," said Mahon, referring to the daily transport of prisoners to and from other counties that is common practice in the current scenario. Mahon cited advantages to securing prisoners that the new facility will present and said more prisoners are seen now in the alley behind the Sheriff's department then will ever be seen once the new facility is constructed.

McNutt closed the discussion by saying County Commissioners were not trying to hide anything pertaining to the project, that they were working on an informative brochure and would attempt to do a better job of communicating with the public.

Prior to the jail discussion the Planning Commission unanimously approved to reaffirm the downtown blighted area, which hadn''t been updated since 1999. The downtown blighted area runs along Norris Avenue from E Street to A Street and also encompasses portions of East First Street and runs as far West as West Third Street. The re-designation of the area as substandard and blighted is intended to assist in obtaining grant funding to be used for downtown planning and new development in the downtown area.

The re-zoning from Light Industrial to Business Commercial of property at McCorkle Motors was unanimously approved. The requested rezone will allow the business to proceed with an expansion at the location.

A request from a truck and farm equipment repair shop for a special exception to operate in a agriculture district was postponed until a April 9 meeting at the recommendation of City Attorney Nate Schneider. Schneider was concerned that notice requirements to adjacent property owners may not have been met.

Utility Director Jesse Dutcher recapped to the Planning Commission the city's capability to supply water and sewer to several potential subdivision areas located within the City of McCook two mile extra-territorial zone. Dutcher said the city water system had a capacity of 6.5 million gallons pumped per day and utilized an average of 3 million gallons per day, with an annual peak just over 4 million. Residential and light industrial development should not pose a problem for the system, according to Dutcher, who said that heavy industrial development could probably be accommodated as well, but would depend on the industry and their waste output.

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I do not agree with the idea of building the new jail facilities on Norris Avenue. In my opinion that part of town has historical value. There are other places where it could be built that wouldn't degrade the history/beauty of Norris Ave. I don't understand the "push" to get this building built without the blessings of the citizens who live there.

-- Posted by PattyH1956 on Tue, Mar 13, 2012, at 10:28 PM

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