County finalizes courthouse funding

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Disappointment and relief both spread in the board room Tuesday after the county commissioners made a final decision not to have a referendum for the courthouse project.

&uot;Never before in my term in office have I witnessed such vocal expression by the citizens of Freeborn County,&uot; Commissioner Chair Dave Mullenbach said, reading a statement before he entered the motion to finalize the details of the county’s project.

&uot;I believe in my heart I would be abdicating my responsibility as a county commissioner if I did not do what is in the best interests of Freeborn County residents … The debate to construct new county facilities has gone on for far too long. The need to conduct more studies, look at more options and review more data is over.&uot;

Email newsletter signup

The 3-2 vote concluded the long-time discussion about choosing a financing method for the $25.7 million project, the largest enterprise the county has ever undertaken.

The board included $590,000 to expand the main highway maintenance shop and build a new satellite shop in Alden in the bonding, which made the final amount of the bonds $26,329,236.

The county will be obligated to pay a $2.23 million annual installment for 20 years, which reflects on tax bills consequently. Bonding firm Evensen Dodge calculates the annual extra tax burden on a residential homestead will be $34 for a $25,000 house and $268 for a $200,000 house.

The decision will hit rural residents most severely. Unlike a bond sale with a referendum, general-obligation, non-referendum bonds do not exempt agricultural non-homestead properties from sharing the tax obligation. Farmers will bear $67 annually for a $50,000 house and $325 for a $400,000 house. In addition, they will be responsible to pay $67 for $50,000 worth of farmland and $537 for $400,000, according to estimates.

Casting a vote in favor, Commissioner Mark Behrends said, &uot;I admit I don’t like the price tag. I’m a farmer and I’ve figured out about what it will cost me. I’m not anxious to pay, but I understand the need and can work with the increase. If we stop, the price tag will continue to go up, and the problems will continue.&uot;

Commissioners Glen Mathiason and Dan Belshan, both also farmers, opposed the motion.

Mathiason’s prime concern was the project size. Though he had seconded a previous motion by Belshan to go with referendum bonding &045; a motion that was declared invalid Tuesday &045; Mathiason said he would not be in favor of a referendum.

Rather, he wanted the board to compress the cost to somewhere around $15 to $17 million by modifying the plan, so that he could fully support the project and persuade his constituents.

Belshan’s challenge had a different angle.

He has been claiming that renting beds from other counties and facilitating extensive alternative sentencing could downsize the jail portion of the project. And he said the county should pick referendum bonds that guarantee a lowest interest rate.

&uot;All the maneuvering, all the parsing of words, the lack of independent studies and lack of cooperation with surrounding counties. None of that changes the fact that the project has grown from a secure courts building to tearing down a functional building, constructing a new jail and LEC, and borrowing 80 percent of our legal debt limit for the project without a referendum,&uot; Belshan said.

As they did during the past several board meetings and workshops, both opponents and proponents of the project addressed the commissioners.

Supporting Belshan’s view, Truman Thrond, who organized a group that opposed the demolition of the 1954 building and called for a referendum later, said, &uot;We live in a humane society. It is not a time to lock up and forget. We need to concentrate on training and rehabilitation. There is not enough money in the world to build jail facilities for all offenders.&uot;

&uot;Some of the commissioners are proceeding with haste to injustice if you stay on your present course of action. There is a saying that may be appropriate, ‘It takes a good man to know when to pull out of a bad deal,’&uot; he added.

Frank Gjersvik, a former candidate for commissioner himself, urged the commissioners to come up with the best way to handle the courthouse issue, considering other financial needs such as for school districts. &uot;If you tax the people and put us in the situation where we cannot afford to live here, there’s not going to be anybody left. All we’ll have is a brand new courthouse and new jail.&uot;

Supporters of the courthouse plan also spoke out.

&uot;We still have a romantic notion that the government can somehow be held in a shack, or maybe you can downsize, and still do all of the things we demand,&uot; said Paul Ehlers. &uot;We’re going to pay for the cost one way or another. As a taxpayer in Freeborn County, I would rather see my tax dollars spent on the jail and staff here in the Freeborn County, than having my tax dollar being sent over to Austin, or up to Owatonna or over to Rochester to house our prisoner somewhere else.&uot;

&uot;We spent a long time on this,&uot; business owner Don Sorenson added. &uot;A lot of time and a lot of input. I don’t think we can afford not to do this, wasting another two or three years.&uot;

The project will expand the courthouse southward and create a new jail, law-enforcement center, court complex and other county offices. The northernmost part of the courthouse, the 1954 building, will be demolished and the oldest portion of the courthouse will be renovated inside and out.