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County board hears update on proposed jail expansion

Cook County Courthouse and government offices. WTIP file photo
Cook County Courthouse and government offices. WTIP file photo

There was a meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Feb. 26. The following discussion and action items occurred during this week’s meeting.

Grand Marais Mayor Jay Arrowsmith-Decoux appeared before the county board to start the meeting. He shared a proclamation that he approved as mayor to declare Feb. 26 Norman Deschampe Day in Grand Marais.

Deschampe, the longtime chairman for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, passed away Feb. 9.

Tuesday, Feb. 26, was Deschampe’s birthday. Arrowsmith-DeCoux read the entire proclamation, afterward drawing a round of applause from everyone in attendance.
Public Comment
There was a large crowd for Tuesday’s meeting of the county board. Board Chair Ginny Storlie asked those in the audience if they were all there to hear an update on the local jail facility. Many acknowledged they were, to which Storlie said any discussion Tuesday about a possible jail expansion was limited to hearing information only, and that no action on the jail was scheduled for this week’s meeting. In addition, Storlie reminded local residents a public information session on the project will be held on Thursday, March 21, at 6 p.m., at the courthouse. Everyone is encouraged to attend, Storlie said.

During Tuesday’s public comment period, local resident Arvis Thompson wanted to discuss loans the county is involved with, including interest on the loans and why they were given to certain organizations, namely Superior National Golf Course in Lutsen.

Thompson also wanted to ask questions and share thoughts on a proposed jail expansion in the county.

Pam Dorris also spoke to the commissioners Tuesday. Dorris said people who are concerned about issues such as rising taxes in the county are inaccurately labeled as ‘a vocal minority.’ Dorris also expressed concern about the jail expansion.

Following that, Grand Marais resident Ben Peters said he has spent a great deal of time researching the actual need to have a jail expansion in the county. Peters said there is a decline in the average daily population in the jail and transportation costs to house inmates outside of the county. Peters also said it is inaccurate to claim the jail expansion won’t impact local taxpayers.

Also voicing concern about the jail during the public comment period were local residents Lloyd Speck, Bruce Martinson, Gordon Salisbury and Brad Thompson.

Another local resident, Colton Thompson, said he was concerned not just about the jail study and possible expansion, but how the county spends money overall.
Jail Update
Indeed, a key topic on the agenda Tuesday was the county’s ‘Jail Study Master Plan’ facilitated by Wold Architects and a possible expansion of the local jail facility.

The recommendation from the study is to expand the current jail and law enforcement center to accommodate for holding more inmates.  If expanded, the jail redesign will cost approximately $5 million.

John McNamara from the design firm Wold Architects shared an update with the county board regarding the expansion of the local law enforcement center and jail. Expanding the jail could reduce the need for inmate transfers to other counties, which cost both time and money, according to county officials. Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliason says the county’s current policy now requires a transfer after holding an individual for 72 hours. McNamara said the average length of stay for a Cook County inmate is six to eight days.

In November, the county board approved on a 5-0 vote to hire Wold Architects to begin a design plan to expand the local jail. This initial study will cost approximately $42,700.

McNamara said once the design phase is done there will be final projected numbers to expand the local jail. The design phase is nearing completion. Wold’s operational analysis summary states that it would cost less annually to operate a full county jail than to continue housing prisoners out of the county. The county will be retiring debt service in 2020 and could finance this project starting in 2021, without an increase in property tax levy, according to information shared prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

The schematic design does not mean expanding the local jail is a plan that will move forward, but there is support to explore the recommendation further and determine the appropriate public safety/ jail needs for Cook County, according to Eliasen.

After the presentation on the jail, the commissioners asked a series of questions about the proposal and design plan. Among them were how long the facility will be able to serve the community. Commissioner Dave Mills said it is important to think long-term about the jail.

Once again, the next community meeting on the proposed jail expansion is Thursday, March 21 at 6 p.m. in the commissioner’s room.
More News
In more news from Tuesday’s meeting, Rena Rogers from the county’s IT Department shared a request for approval of a 30-year land lease with Mediacom at an initial lease rate of $4,800 per year with annual 3 percent increase over the prior year.

Rogers also shared a lengthy update on her county department and its plans to continue expanding and generating revenue for the county through tower leases with commercial organizations.

The county board also approved Tuesday to provide a 5-year, $30,000 loan to Sugarbush Trail Association for trail grooming equipment.

And finally, the county board voted to appoint local residents Adam Treeful and Randall Knudsen to the Cook County Parks and Trails Commission.
Listen to the audio below for more news about the jail expansion in Cook County.