County struggling with justice center

Wadena County commissioners continue to wrestle with the need for a justice center and the lack of bonding ability to build the center. On Monday evening, about 60 members of the public and township and city officials listened to history of space...

Wadena County commissioners continue to wrestle with the need for a justice center and the lack of bonding ability to build the center.

On Monday evening, about 60 members of the public and township and city officials listened to history of space needs in the county, courts issues, law enforcement/jail issues and choosing a new site instead of adding onto the existing courthouse.

A proposed justice center including jail, law enforcement and courts is estimated at about $16 million, while Wadena Countys debt limit is about $12.5 million, according to calculations by Ehlers and Associates, the countys financial advisers.

Even a scaled-down version that included phasing of the courts later would maximize the countys debt limit, said Larry Koch, KKE Architect.

The county has spent about $170,000 for the work KKE Architects has done with plans for a justice center, said Auditor/Treasurer Char West. Some of that money came from the sale of Fair Oaks Lodge, she said. The county set up a fund with that money that has gone toward building expenses such as the architect and the courthouse repair that cost about $100,000.


The county has been discussing remodeling options because of space constraints in the current courthouse especially within the court administration and the sheriffs departments.

The county has had KKE Architects develop options for a justice center and provide cost comparison between adding on to the existing courthouse and building at a new site. The cost was estimated to be about the same but if the downtown facility were remodeled, there would be no room for future expansion, Koch said.

Also, the county board has had discussions with the city of Wadena about sharing law enforcement space. The police department needs about $500,000 in improvements.

The sheriffs and city police departments would remain separate entities even if they share space.

Now, county commissioners are looking into funding options and trying to figure out a way to fund a justice center.

Representatives from the county emphasized the need for a justice center.

Judge Sally Robertson said a justice center is needed because of security, a shortage of space, safety and a lack of handicapped space. She said the courthouse security consists of a sign on the door that says no guns.

With the increase in meth use, there is more chance of a situation turning bad quickly, Robertson said.


There really are safety issues here, she said.

Robertson said there is a cost to not building a justice center. Maybe its not dollars but in people if there is a tragedy, she said.

Minimal handicapped accessibility is a problem in the courthouse, Robertson said. She remembers a time when outside her courtroom, a man had a heart attack. When the ambulance arrived, paramedics were unable to get the gurney into the elevator because it was too small. The man was large and the paramedics had to carry him down a flight of stairs.

I think its a liability, she said.

She understands that a new justice center would be a financial burden on taxpayers. But the need is real and the need is now, Robertson said.

Wadena County Sheriff Mike Carr talked about the increased number of prisoners and explained that meth use and juvenile problems have increased.

When Carr first became sheriff about 27 years ago, the county had a 10-bed jail, he said. Every year, more people are in the jail.

Now jail capacity is 20, but with double bunking often has more than 20 prisoners. Also, the county consistently boards out excessive prisoners to other counties. Carr estimated boarding out six prisoners for the entire year would cost $148,044 plus transportation costs. The cost includes deputy time and cost of boarding.


On Feb. 21, the county had 25 prisoners in custody and seven boarded out, Carr said.

Prisoners each have several court appearances that need to be made in Wadena County so several trips must be made, Carr said.

The county is in a real financial hardship, and Carr said he doesnt know the answer to the problem.

I dont know if we can afford this, he said.

Several past discussions led to a proposed site for a justice center.

Commissioners have discussed the old Wadena airport near Sunnybrook Park as a possible location for the proposed justice center. The roughly 200 acres of vacant property is owned by the city of Wadena. The city is working to rezone the property and start development.

The proposed jail has 34 beds, expandable to 66 beds through double bunking, Koch said. The size is the result of a needs assessment completed in July 2002. The jail is mezzanine style that maximizes staff efficiency and safety by having clear sight lines.

In August, the county had a public hearing to discuss the justice center and the issuance of $4.25 million in bonds to help pay for a proposed justice center. The county didnt take action on the issuance of bonds.


State Sen. Cal Larson (R-Fergus Falls) and State Rep. Dean Simpson (R-New York Mills) introduced legislation for construction of the Wadena County Regional Justice Center.

The legislators are requesting $16.595 million in state bonds.

The Legislature was scheduled to convene Wednesday (March 1).

Wadena County commissioners met with legislators in December, asking them to consider introducing the request for the states bonding bill.

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