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Douglas County Commissioners discus consequences of not building new jail

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ALEXANDRIA - Even though it wasn't on Tuesday's agenda, the Douglas County Jail was the first topic of discussion for the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.

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Commissioner Paul Anderson brought up the topic as the regularly scheduled meeting got under way, stating that in the last five or six years of discussing the jail, there were some issues that either haven't been emphasized or have been forgotten.

First off, Anderson said that if the county does not build a new jail, it has already spent close to $400,000.

"And for what? We don't have anything," he said.

Additionally, if a new jail isn't built, the current jail facility will be shut down and the county won't have anything at all. Because of this, said Anderson, people will lose their jobs - more than likely, it would be at least 20 people, if not more.

If the current facility is shut down, the county would have to hire at least four new deputies because it would have to start transporting prisoners to other counties, said Anderson. And if that happens, he added, it would cost roughly $100,000 per deputy to be equipped, which includes a squad car.

"We think we can take prisoners to jail and that's the end of it," Anderson said, "but there could be six round trips before the prisoner is put away."

He noted that according to figures from Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen, transporting prisoners on a daily basis could cost the county an estimated $3 million per year.

In addition, Anderson said losing the Douglas County Jail would mean losing the Sentence to Serve program, the Huber work release program, which he noted would more than likely mean those participating in the program would lose their jobs, and the county would lose the Institution Community Work Crew.

Anderson told the other four commissioners that with a new jail, the bond payment would be roughly $1.2 million annually.

"I don't like to pay taxes either, but this is the time to do it...to me it doesn't make sense not to do this," Anderson said of building a new jail.

He thanked the board for listening to his concerns and said if there were any questions, Sheriff Wolbersen and the county's auditor/treasurer, Tom Reddick, were in attendance and prepared to answer them.

Commissioner Jerry Johnson spoke first and questioned the $3 million cost to transport prisoners.

"I would like to see those numbers, I guess," Johnson told Anderson.

Reddick spoke up and said that when it comes to the numbers, the county has to rely on what is presented by the sheriff because he is the department head and has a handle on his department.

"The thing I want to bring forward," Reddick told the board, "is that if we lose the jail permit, we no longer have a jail and if we look at the numbers, it's roughly the same amount."

The numbers Reddick was talking about were those for transporting prisoners or building the new jail.

"I know the public is telling you not to spend money, but we are going to spend it because we have to," said Reddick.

Board Chair Bev Bales said the board did turn down other options - options that could have been cheaper - for building a new jail.

"We picked what the chief and sheriff wanted, but now economics got in the way," Bales told the board. "I guess it comes down to you can't get blood out of a turnip."

Bales also questioned the cost for transporting prisoners, saying she thought it was a "far out figure."

Commissioner Dan Olson said, "I thought this thing was done. This is something that has to be done. We have studied and studied this thing...We need to do something; we can't just sit here. We need to build this jail. No one can pin the numbers down; we have to go ahead."

Olson also reiterated what Reddick said about information presented by Sheriff Wolbersen.

"It's his department. We have to trust these people. That's what we have to do," he stated. "We need to move forward."

After the commissioners had their say, Wolbersen, who was sitting in the audience, spoke before the board.

He said that through all of the discussions on the jail project, money has been one of the priorities - not people.

"We can talk about money all we want, but we also have to talk about the people," said Wolbersen.

The sheriff said that transporting prisoners would be dangerous. He recalled the time Deputy Curt Felt died in the line of duty while transporting a prisoner.

"Transports are dangerous," stated the sheriff. "If prisoners have court, they know about it and can call someone and make a plan for escape."

He told the board that the county would be putting its employees at risk if it relied on transporting prisoners every day.

In addition, he talked about the effects layoffs would have, not only on the people involved, but the community as a whole.

"These economic times are tough right now and as strange as it sounds, this is the best time to build," Wolbersen told the commissioners, adding, "The public works site is a last resort. It may not be the best, but it's better than any other option we have. It's workable. We need to build a jail now and avoid the sunset in August. The new jail plan is economical and functional."

Reddick concluded by telling the commissioners, "Starting tomorrow [Wednesday], I will start the bond process. We will be spending money again. I need to know what you want me to do."

In a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, Reddick told the newspaper that because the commissioners didn't tell him to stop the process, the paperwork to sell bonds for the jail project - a maximum of $16.7 million worth - was started. He thought that by Thursday, which is when the project is presented for bidding, the cost should be lowered.

The board will consider the bids at a special board meeting set for next Tuesday, March 17 at 9 a.m.

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