Commissioners reject proposal for alternate site
McCOOK, Nebraska -- Monday morning, Dale Dueland once again approached Red Willow County, Nebraska, commissioners about locating the county's new jail at a "greenfield" site next to the state's Work Ethic Camp northwest of McCook, insisting "there are better plans" than building a law enforcement center next door to the courthouse.
Once again, commissioners Earl McNutt, Steve Downer and Vesta Dack listened, looked through the pages of Dueland's presentation, and declined to change their minds.
Following about 40 minutes of discussion -- Dueland warned that he might go over the 15 minutes alloted. "This is an important enough issue," he said -- commissioners moved on to the next agenda item and voted unanimously on a motion by Dack and a second by Downer to authorize McNutt to sign an agreement with Prohaska & Associates for architectural services for the construction of the law enforcement center -- north of the courthouse.
Commission chairman McNutt told Dueland and his supporters and several county officials gathered in the commissioners' office Monday morning that commissioners are working for the majority -- for county residents who outnumber those attending the commissioners' meeting, those who have contacted board members in person, by phone, or by e-mail in support of the jail and sheriff's offices being built on three lots north of the courthouse.
Dueland said, responding to questions about why he's bringing up objections to a jail on Norris Avenue at this point in the process, that he first addressed the subject in 1997, when, as a member of the McCook Planning Commission, he voted for a city zoning change that would allow publicly-operated jails or correctional facilities in an agricultural district -- which is how the land on which he is proposing to build the jail south of the work ethic camp is zoned.
Dueland also presented an opinion from the Lincoln, Nebraska, Journal Star newspaper dated March 1, 2012, in which the Journal Star supports the use of video teleconferencing between the jail and courthouse separated by several miles, as a way to save prisoner transport money and improve security.
Dueland also presented pages from the county's jail study indicating that Option IA, (which is building the new 15,185-square-foot law enforcement center next door to the courthouse for $5,105,830), is smaller than the 18,230-square-foot "greenfield" proposal that could be built for $5,972,160 (which does not include the cost of site acquisition, extending city utilities if necessary and prisoner transportation costs of approximately $5,905 per year). Both are 24-bed jails with sheriff's offices.
Dueland said, "This is not an apples-apples comparison." The sizes of the buildings are different, he said, and the greenfield site, which is larger, is only $866,330 more expensive to build. "You're insisting on building at the courthouse location to save $6,000 a year," he said.
Dueland said that the only opportunity for expansion on the Norris Avenue site is "up. It's not a good idea to have a three-story jail next to the courthouse."
Dueland insists that there is a possibility of cooperating with the State of Nebraska and its work ethic camp, saying that while there are "no promises," he is encouraged that the state is interested, as indicated by Sen. Mark Christensen during a Chamber of Commerce legislative issues telephone conference call on March 29.
Dack told Dueland, "Where we have our jail makes no difference to the State of Nebraska," but Dueland argued that it does, to reach the greatest operating efficiencies of housing up to 70-some prisoners. Dueland said, "It's okay to have those conversations," about forging a partnership with the state.
Dueland said he can see Red Willow County's situation as "the first opportunity" for the state to work with a county on a joint jail project. "It's a perfect opportunity with the work ethic camp and (the proposed jail) site," he said.
Todd Cappel of McCook told the board he has contacted Sen. Mark Christensen's office, and although he did not talk to the senator, an aide told Cappel that "it was not the senator's intent" to insinuate himself into a local issue. Cappel contended that if Red Willow worked out an arrangement with the state, "what's to keep other counties from approaching the state for help with their jails? Every other county will be knockin' on the state's door."
Downer said that counties have had great difficulties getting reimbursed by the state for state prisoners, and the battle between state and county over reimbursement has gone on for years, and that the state has rarely paid what it actually costs a county to house an inmate.
Downer said the state ended all jail reimbursement payments to counties with new legislation in July 2011.
Dueland said he does not think the jail reimbursement project applies to his proposal, but that attempts are being made to fix the problem.
With Gov. Dave Heinemann's efforts to cut taxes and rein in the state budget, Cappel said, "I don't see this (a cooperative effort on a Red Willow County jail) getting past the governor."
Dueland is proposing to build a jail only and a satellite sheriff's office on the WEC site, which provides room for expansion. This leaves the sheriff's office temporarily where it is on Norris Avenue, Dueland said, addressing concerns voiced by courthouse officials about courthouse security. This saves, he says, $700,000 in construction costs and preserves "the valuable characteristics of the Norris Avenue neighborhood" and/or leaves the Norris Avenue lots for a new county office building with sheriff's headquarters and other county offices.
"If things are going very well," Dueland said, both the Norris Avenue sheriff's headquarters/office space building could be built and the jail site at the WEC location could be expanded in two to five years, based on WEC cooperative development, jail overcrowding in state facilities and commissioners' spending priorities.
This would consolidate all county services except the jail at the courthouse, he said. (Dueland did not mention, however, the health department at the fairgrounds or the veterans' services office in the Merit Building.)
Dueland said commissioners could create parking on or sell the lot on which the Spencer apartment house stood, on the corner north of the courthouse, to "preserve a Norris Avenue open view of the 'Sutton House'." Dueland said he's confident he can find private financing for a project like this.
Gene O. Morris told commissioners that there has been "no discussion to hear this idea -- only defense of the courthouse location. Remember, the jail committee was influenced by the acquisition of property (north of the courthouse)." He admitted that the decision for commissioners "has been difficult for you-all, but you've done it without full consideration of other ideas."
McNutt told Morris, "This board's had the same discussions. Vesta has been to state meetings. The ideas have been explored." Experts have been hired; two county-based jail committees have studied it since 2005-2006; jail projects -- in progress and newly completed -- have been visited. "I'm tired of being run over by you," McNutt told Dueland. "Why do you think you're an expert? Better than anyone we've paid good money for?
The Reverend Lance Clay of Memorial United Methodist Church -- located across the street east of the courthouse -- said he is not taking sides, but that he is concerned with the normal traffic congestion of church services and funerals interfering with sheriff's traffic. Dack told him that all of the sheriff's traffic will come and go through a sally port on the west side, in the alley, of the proposed law enforcement center. "No one will see the (prisoner) comings and goings from the front," she said.
Building near the WEC location will still entail transporting prisoners, McNutt said, explaining that residents have asked him why the county would ever build a new jail and then still be in the prisoner transportation business. Dack agreed, saying, "At the WEC location, we'd still be transporting prisoners, and the concern for public safety would continue."
McNutt told Dueland and his supporters, "You don't realize the number of phone calls I get telling me to go forward with it (the jail north of the courthouse). We are working for the majority of the people."
"How do we know that? How do we know that?," Morris questioned, attributing his love of McCook and concern for its future for the level of his passion.
Dale Cotton of McCook recommended circulating a petition regarding the location of the jail. Cotton said many McCook buildings are eligible for historical designations, but they have not been placed on an historical registry. "We need state support for a historical project like Heritage Square, for a historical district," he said. He suggested looking into a regional jail, a jail "as a business and not a function of the county. We need a show of support for a regional jail."
Dueland said he could see "no problem" in delaying the whole process 30 to 60 days. "If you make a decision to go into a contract (with Prohaska & Associates), it will be more expense to stop, back up and start again," he said, adding, "We've raised enough questions and done enough research. We've got a better proposal than what's been developed the past nine months."
As commissioners discussed a contract for architectural services with Prochaska & Associates, Dueland said, "You could stop now and delay this project. There are break-points," he said, within the process outlined step-by-step by Prochaska and Associates.
McNutt said Prochaska & Associates has been paid $37,000 for the schematic design phase and will be paid $92,000 for the development/design phase.
From the start through the construction phase, Prochaska & Associates would be paid $370,940. All these charges are included in the $5.1 million designated for construction of the law enforcement center, not over-and-above the $5.1 million, McNutt said.
Stopping the process would require a majority vote of the board, Dack said. "And that's not going to happen," Downer said.
Red Willow County residents will decide in the ballot booths May 15 whether to finance the new law enforcement center.
Voters will be asked to vote "for" or "against" placing the law enforcement center's 4 1⁄2-cent special tax levy outside the levy limit of 50 cents per $100 of tax valuation. McNutt said state law requires the successful vote of patrons for a special levy to be placed outside of the state levy limit.
If the vote is successful, the bond levy to repay construction costs of the jail would be outside the levy limit and in addition to whatever amount the county levies for its general budget.
If the vote fails, the construction levy would have to be figured within the 50-cent state levy limit and as part of the general budget.
What it all boils down to, McNutt said in early March, is the financial stability of Red Willow County. Downer said the vote will determine how the county continues to provide services to county residents. "Anyone who lives on a county road should be for it," Downer said.
Dack said that county employees would be affected first if the vote fails and construction bonds must be paid for within the general budget. McNutt agreed, saying some of the first cuts would have to be county personnel and county employees' benefits.
Downer said other cuts that commissioners would have to make would be contributions to organizations seeking county support, such as, among others, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault Services, the Family Resource Center, the McCook Economic Development Corp., the McCook Humane Society. Predator control now paid for by the county may have to go, McNutt said. Downer said that many of these contributions "are the right thing to do, but they would be at risk."
Downer has said that with the fixed cost of construction at $5.1 million and with a bond repayment tax levy that decreases over time to 4.4 cents, he does not foresee huge increases in taxpayers' tax bill. He estimated that most taxpayers will see a 1 to 2 percent increase in their tax bills because of construction of the jail and law enforcement offices.
Commissioners wrote the "Pros" and the "Cons" of the bond levy outside the levy limit.
The list of "Pros" includes maintaining the financial stability of Red Willow County; creating "breathing room" within the county's general budget for increases that are out of commissioners' control -- such as inflation, the price of fuel and repairs, replacement of equipment; and preserving the existing level of services provided by the county.
The "cons" include what McNutt called a "tight, tight, tight" general budget; the loss and/or reduction of county services, county personnel and county employees' benefits; and the elimination of contributions to organizations seeking county support.