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Plenty of public comment at jail facility information meeting

The public information meeting regarding the proposed Law Enforcement Center/Jail Facility on Thursday, March 21 was very well attended. There were about 90 people crowded into the commissioner’s room at the courthouse, with about another 15 trying to hear from the lobby.

The meeting started with brief comments by Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen, County Attorney Molly Hicken, County Administrator Jeff Cadwell and John McNamara of Wold, the firm that has been conducting research about the project.
County Attorney Hicken talked about the complicated process of transporting prisoners for court.

She added comments from the probation office, the public defender and the judge, all stating benefits of having a Class 3 jail facility, which would allow inmates to stay at the Cook County jail for more than 72 hours.

Public Information Director Valerie Marasco facilitated the meeting and invited members of the public forward to ask questions, stressing questions only. She asked that people hold their comments until the end of the meeting. More than 20 people came forward with questions, which the presenters answered immediately if they had the information.

People asked about the cost of the study and what has been paid to date; about what really needs to be fixed or remedied to the building now; about the role of other jails and the Northeastern Regional Correction Center (NERC); about the average prisoner county and current cost for transportation vs. future operational costs if a Class 3 facility is built.

Unfortunately, there were not answers to all the questions. Apparently because of the way the inmate population has been counted and logged over the years, there are gaps in the data, which raised more questions.  

There were several questions about future maintenance costs with some citizens expressing frustration that the county has not yet estimated operational costs for a larger, Class 3 jail. In answer to repeated questions about the costs, the Sheriff and Administrator Cadwell said the proposal was not at the point to calculate those expenses.

And while it seemed the majority of the citizens present were opposed to spending up to $5 million for an expanded law enforcement/jail facility, there were a couple who seemed supportive, such as Grand Marais attorney Tyson Smith, who is the assistant public defender.

Citizen Steve Nielsen wondered if this is something that would happen eventually no matter what.

No decisions were made at the meeting, however, there appeared to be an indication of what is ahead for the proposal in a back and forth conversation between Bob Swanson of Hovland and Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen

When pressed as to whether the numbers support an expansion to Class 3 at this time, Sheriff Eliasen answered that at this time it is probably not a viable option.  

There were more questions including an inquiry from Anna Hamilton about who gets to make the ultimate decision. Hamilton asked if public input matters, and Administrator Cadwell said indeed it does.

However, Cadwell also said there are services that the county must provide under mandate by the State of Minnesota and the federal government.

All that was really clear at the end of the informational meeting is that what happens next is not really known.

Although all of the county board members were there, they sat in the audience as members of the public. Meeting facilitator Valerie Marasco invited the commissioners to speak at the end of the meeting. Commissioners Ginny Storlie, Myron Bursheim, Heidi Doo-Kirk and Dave Mills all spoke, thanking citizens for coming. They all said they would consider the public comments before making any decisions.