Carlton County voters to get say on jail funding

The county’s request to hold a vote for residents to approve a local option sales tax to pay for its planned justice center project was included in the tax bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature in June.

File: Carlton County Jail aerial
The Carlton County Courthouse (left) and jail in Carlton. (Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Pine Journal)

Carlton County voters will have the chance to choose how the planned jail will be funded in November 2022.

The Minnesota Legislature approved the county’s request to hold a vote to approve a 0.5% local option sales tax (LOST) to pay for a new justice center near the county’s Transportation Building on County Road 61.

Using LOST to pay for the facility means those costs won’t be included in the county’s annual property tax levy. Jail administrator Paul Coughlin, who was also appointed project manager by the Carlton County Board of Commissioners, said officials should not call the vote a “referendum” to avoid confusion with local school district requests for additional money.

Coughlin said if a school district referendum fails, the requested building improvements simply don’t happen. However, Carlton County was informed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections it was setting a sunset date of July 31, 2023, for the facility. State officials cited a number of problems with the current 48-bed facility. After that date, the county can no longer house inmates in the building in its current condition.

If voters reject the tax increase, the jail still must be built, but the cost — which estimates have put at nearly $60 million — would "fall solely to the property owners of Carlton County," according to Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake.


“With the sunset letter, we knew we had to build a jail,” Commissioner Marv Bodie said. “If this wouldn’t have passed at all, it would have gone on the property tax levy and it would have hurt a lot of people.”

Related: Carlton County looks at new jail options Construction costs for the project are going up, but the county’s research shows the more robust the new facility is, the lower the long term costs will be.

Carlton County jail replacement options.jpg

The county’s plans have evolved since February, with officials now planning to build a justice center that would house both the courts and the county’s detention center. The costs could rise for the construction of the justice center, but building jail space is far more expensive than building courtrooms or office space, according to Coughlin.

In addition, Carlton County Coordinator Dennis Genereau said the long term savings ratios should be similar in the justice center scenario.

Annexation plans move forward

During its meeting Monday, July 26, the board also voted unanimously to move its preferred site for constructing the new facility to property near the Carlton County Transportation Building contingent on the annexation of 20 acres of property by the city of Carlton.

The board began exploring the alternative site in April after problems emerged with the site near the courthouse. However, Minnesota statute requires the county’s courthouse and jail to be in the county seat.


The property by the Transportation Building is in Twin Lakes Township. The Carlton City Council and Twin Lakes Town Board have agreed to hold public hearings on Carlton potentially annexing the 20 acres of county land where the jail would be built. Twin Lakes Board Chair Diane Felde-Finke asked the county to commit to building the justice center at the site on Carlton County Road 61, also called the “green site.”

Minnesota statute does not require the property to be contiguous to the rest of the county seat. The county already owns the land it hopes Carlton can annex for the justice center project, meaning the tax bases in Carlton and Twin Lakes would not be affected.

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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