The Carlton County Board of Commissioners explored a variety of options for a new jail during the first in a series of working meetings on the issue Tuesday, Feb. 23.

The county has done a number of studies exploring the costs of replacing the more than 40-year-old facility next to the Carlton County Courthouse, but a number of obstacles — including the COVID-19 pandemic — have prevented it from moving forward.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections informed the county in January 2020 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.

Jail administrator Paul Coughlin, who was also appointed project manager by the board, presented six options to replace the current facility at the meeting Tuesday. The choices ranged from a simple central processing center to a robust, Class III jail with 80 beds and male and female offender programs.

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Coughlin and Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake cautioned that the costs presented to the board are preliminary and are based on a report the board has not yet approved, so the numbers could shift. Lake said the numbers wouldn’t firm up until the board hires an architectural and engineering firm. One of Coughlin’s 2021 goals is to hire a firm to design the new building.

The options presented included:

  • A 24,200-square-foot central processing center with no beds at a cost of $29.6 million;

  • A 38,100-square-foot Class I jail with 40 beds limited to holding inmates for 72 hours would cost $39.8 million;

  • A 90-day, 49,000-square-foot Class II jail with 60 beds for $46.8 million;

  • A 55,200-square-foot Class III jail with 80 beds at a cost of $47.4 million;

  • A 61,300-square-foot Class III jail with 80 beds and a female offender program would cost $52.3 million; and

  • A 67,500-square-foot Class III jail with 80 beds plus male and female offender programs at a cost of $56.2 million.

The jail steering committee’s recommendation to the board was to build one of the Class III options. While the three other options may look more attractive right now, Coughlin said, over the life of the jail, the Class III options will actually cost the county less money.

“It is not recommended to go with either of those first two options or even the third option, the 90-day, because we know we’re building in where after 90 days, no one can stay here,” Coughlin said. “They can come for a court hearing, but they’re going to have to go right back to wherever they’re housed. We’re basically saying the cost models ... it’ll actually cost you more over the 20- to 30-year life cycle of the jail.”

The first three scenarios would require the county to pay to house and transport inmates to and from facilities outside Carlton County. Lake said housing an inmate outside the county costs a minimum of $55 per day. Those costs go up if the inmate has special medical needs or is a behavioral problem.

The county has a number of people at the jail awaiting trial. For example, Sheldon Thompson has been in custody for nearly a year awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges. In the 90-day scenario, Thompson would have been moved out of the facility in June and the county would have paid to house him in another county. The length of time he would have been housed out of the county would have been even longer with one of the other two less expensive options.

Coughlin and Lake both said a new facility would likely last well beyond 30 years. The current jail was opened in 1979 and was built without any guidance from the DOC, but the new one will be constructed according to updated standards and regulations.

“There won’t be a shovel in the ground without DOC approval,” Lake said.

While the central processing center would cost only $29.6 million to build, the total cost over 20 years to maintain and operate it is estimated to be $165 million and $267 million over 30 years.

Despite the eye-popping initial number, the Class III facility with female and male offender programs would cost the county $151 million over 20 years and $202 million over 30 years, officials said.

“If the facility is maintained and managed in a way that lasts longer than 30 years, your cost-benefit analysis will actually get better the further you can keep that jail in operation,” Coughlin said.

The discrepancy between the two options becomes even greater when the different types of funding sources are factored in.

In December, the county asked the Minnesota Legislature to approve a referendum asking Carlton County voters to approve a 0.5% local option sales tax (LOST) to pay for the building’s construction. If voters give their approval in a general election in November 2022, the Legislature would have to approve the new tax before it takes effect.

If the county accesses that funding, the sales tax would spread the cost of the jail across a larger group of people than just Carlton County property taxpayers. In addition to residents, people who pass through or work in Carlton County would help cover the costs.

According to 20-year estimates, approximately $135 million of the total $165 million projected to be spent on the jail would fall to the property tax levy in the central processing center. In the more expensive, $56.2 million facility, around $95 million would be paid by Carlton County’s property taxpayers.

There is a question whether the four less expensive options would qualify for local option sales tax funding. The state requires that any project using LOST funds have “regional significance.” The county proposed developing a female offender program for the facility — something desperately needed across Minnesota — to meet the regional significance threshold.

The Legislature appropriated $2 million in last year’s bonding bill to help pay for the design and development of a female offender program, though the board has yet to vote to accept the money.

If county officials do not get approval to increase the local option sales tax from the state or county voters, they would still need to figure out a solution before the DOC sunset date.

At the meeting, the board also set up a regular working meeting to discuss the jail project. The meetings will take place at 2 p.m. on the third Monday of each month at the Carlton County Transportation Building in Carlton.