Austin delays jail over job guarantees

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 18, 2006

By Josh Verges, staff writer

AUSTIN &8212; &8220;One minor, big thing&8221; has halted city-county efforts toward building a jail and justice center at the Cook Farm industrial park.

Discussions between Austin and Mower County staff have led to agreements on nearly every facet of a joint justice center, but the city&8217;s insistence on penalizing the county if they don&8217;t replace downtown jobs remains a sticking point.

The city has called for a $350,000 penalty to back up a county guarantee that building a jail won&8217;t mean a net less in downtown county workers. They say a penalty would be the only way to enforce that agreement.

County Coordinator Craig Oscarson has refused to make that guarantee. Discussions that some human services workers will be employed by the state, rather than the county, and the prospect of new county commissioners being elected are two reasons.

In a lengthy City Council work session Monday, the council considered changing the wording to meet their needs, then presenting it to the county as an ultimatum. Instead, they will schedule a special council meeting in the next seven days to decide how to proceed.

The county board wants to know by its Oct. 24 meeting whether the city will join them, on what terms, and at which sites. But the special city meeting will not include a decision on whether they&8217;d move police to the southeast Austin site if the Cook Farm plan falls apart.

Some on the city&8217;s side said they believe Oscarson&8217;s negotiations haven&8217;t reflected his elected board&8217;s wishes. County board chair David Hillier said at Monday&8217;s work session that at least four of the five commissioners want to replace the jobs that would leave downtown if a new justice center is built at the Cook Farm or near the airport.

Yet, like Oscarson, Hillier said he would be willing to characterize that intent not as an enforceable &8220;guarantee,&8221; but as a &8220;goal.&8221;

&8220;We&8217;ve come a long way, but it appears there are still some major issues here,&8221; Hillier said.

Characterizing Monday&8217;s discussion, City Finance Director Tom Dankert said, &8220;It&8217;s just that one minor, big thing,&8221; that is keeping the sides from an agreement. Mayor Bonnie Rietz raised a second, lesser big thing on Monday.

In staff discussions, Oscarson changed language in a draft agreement to say the county must build &8220;county facilities&8221; at the Cook Farm site, not specifically a jail and justice center. It opens the possibility that the county &8212; against the council&8217;s wishes &8212; build something else on what is now the city&8217;s land.

Oscarson said this morning that changes being discussed at the state level could reduce the county&8217;s human service workers from 58 to about a dozen, with the rest being employed by the state.

&8220;If that&8217;s the case, we may want to end up putting them next to the courts at the new site,&8221; he said.

Oscarson said that the city and county will be working together to plan the future of downtown, which could include city and county facilities, a family visitation center and a family service center. But to impose a financial penalty would be like the city holding a gun to the county&8217;s collective head, he said.

&8220;The city and county need to trust each other to do the right thing,&8221; he said.

Not so close after all

At an Oct. 3 city-county meeting, it seemed both sides were nearing an agreement. Two weeks later, some council members were headed back to the drawing board. The ideas came after Hillier had gone home.

Councilman Brian McAlister said the city should have been more closely involved when planning started a few years ago.

&8220;I hope this project crashes,&8221; he said after remaining silent for much of the meeting. Unlike much of the council McAlister said he doesn&8217;t care about downtown jobs, just the entire project&8217;s cost to taxpayers. &8220;My goal is start over.&8221;

Councilman Geoff Baker proposed a deal that would make Austin the owner and landlord for the jail and justice center. He said it would give the city more control over the project and would let them simply raise rent as a way of penalizing the county for failing to move jobs downtown.

Though he didn&8217;t say so, such a move also would not require the elusive unanimous council vote.

City Administrator Jim Hurm said he&8217;d be willing to work with the idea, but others said they doubt the county would go for it.

Rietz suggested keeping the discussion going until after the elections. Austin Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sandy Forstner said at the work session that he wants to see the county create a comprehensive plan for human services and the jail and justice center.

&8220;As taxpayers, they need to know the cost of the overall project,&8221; he said, adding that the Oct. 24 deadline is unreasonably pressing the council into making an uninformed decision.