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County needs to address space issues, official says

Deciding how to address space needs and deteriorating conditions in the Wadena County Courthouse has been delayed long enough, according to Mike Gibson, the county's human resources consultant.

"We literally have painted ourselves in a corner," Gibson said. "The community needs to ... understand that."

Tight quarters in the courthouse have been a continuing concern since plans for a justice center fell through in 2006 after county residents balked at the estimated $16 million price tag and the county failed to obtain state bonding money.

In January of this year the county had Baker, Hogan and Houx Architecture and Planning draw up master plan options 7that address the county's space needs, but has yet to decide which direction it will take. The options include remodeling the Wensman Building, adding an addition onto the north side of the courthouse or adding a second floor to the jail.

"We have to do something," Gibson said.

The county has spent $160,000 having plans drawn up and estimates done, he said.

"That money doesn't go to waste," Gibson said. "That material is still very valuable to us."

Now the county needs to make a decision, he said.

"We're not talking that everything has to be done tomorrow," Gibson said.

But he would like the county to establish a long-range plan.

Gibson addressed several concerns he has with the current conditions in the courthouse including lack of jail space and storage problems in the county attorney's office. The potential for the county to be sued if something goes wrong is another problem he addressed.

Solving the space problems in the sheriff's department is the most critical concern right now, Gibson said. He asked Sheriff Mike Carr to identify the problems in his department.

Carr listed the tight quarters in the dispatch room, a lack of holding cells, an unsafe booking room, a visitation room that breaches security, not enough cells for female inmates, unsafe prisoner transports to the courtroom, unacceptable office conditions for his administrative staff and not enough storage space among his concerns.

The dispatch room is filled to the brim with video screens, deputies taking calls, the jail pharmacy, a DNA collection and a desk where an officer does paperwork such as suspense files and predatory offender registrations.

Carr would like to see double the space for dispatch, he said.

"It's a crowded area in here," he said.

Jail Adminstator Tom Speed's office that doubles as the booking room is another crowded space.

Speed's office contains a $50,000 finger print machine, an intoxilator and cubby holes, cabinets and desks for storage.

Carr said there have been serious fights when booking inmates and all the corners and equipment make it a dangerous area. He would like to have a table between the inmate being booked and the officer.

The visitation room is another area that needs to be redone, according to Carr. It breaches the security of the jail because visitors have to come through a secure door to see inmates. Some have tried to sneak things under doors to get them to inmates, he said. He would prefer visitors were kept outside the jail.

The jail also needs additional holding cells for intoxicated inmates, Carr said. The jail's one holding cell can only hold one inmate at a time. Sometimes jailers have to put inmates in the jail library when the holding cell is occupied. He would like around two more holding cells, he said.

A lack of cells for female inmates is also an issue, he said. There are only four bunks and they have to house a lot of women out of the county. When the jail was built in the early 1970s female inmates were very rare, but that's changed.

"We've got some pretty violent females," Carr said.

The current system of transporting prisoners to court is not what he would like, Carr said. Shackled inmates walk directly from the jail through the public waiting area in the sheriff's department to get to court.

The office conditions for his administrative staff are also not ideal. His administrative assistant should be behind glass, he said. She deals with some pretty hostile people.

A lack of proper storage space is another major concern, Carr said. He had to turn one of his sally ports into storage rooms for evidence and files.

Jail booking files have to be on paper, Speed said, and they can never be destroyed.

The county attorney also needs better storage for her files, Gibson said.

Having the basement of the courthouse dedicated to law enforcement would alleviate the jail problems, Gibson said. But that means relocating other departments.

The biggest decision commissioners have to make regarding the renovations is if they want to add onto the courthouse or remodel the Wensman Building, Gibson said.

"Once they make that, that helps me because I've got people coming in that are going to be looking at the heating air conditioning systems," he said. "I want to know is this going to be a bigger building or the same size."

The county's deteriorating infrastructure is an issue. The HVAC people can correct problems to fit the current use of the building, he said. But that's a waste of money if the county decides to change the building in three months.

The county could also be sued if an agency finds the building in violation of codes, Gibson said. Then they have to do quick fixes.

"Before winter hits we want something to be done," Gibson said.

Gibson doesn't think it's appropriate for him to recommend one option over another right now, he said. But if the commissioners ask him to he will.

"At this point I'll wait and see if they can come to a decision," he said.

The commissioners are scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. on July 22 to continue their discussion of the master plan options.