The Mower County jail battle is far from over

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 24, 2008

By Lee Bonorden,

AUSTIN &8212; The reception to the unveiling of the proposed Mower County Jail and Justice Center last week suggested near-perfect public acceptance.

But not exactly.

Email newsletter signup

The jail crowding and court security challenges faced by Mower County have been more like a perfect storm of discontent.

Thus, the warm &8212; for lack of a better word &8212; reception to the announcement March 18 of a schematic design for a 128-bed jail in downtown Austin, to be sure, did include some chilly retorts and suggest there is more healing of hurt feelings and compromise to be done before a spade of dirt is turned.

Tying up loose ends

Witness KKE Architects Inc. Mike Clark&8217;s revelation the two-story building will need only one whole block and part of another.

&8220;Sixty-five percent of the site will be needed for the building,&8221; Clark said. &8220;There will be room for expansion of a 120-bed jail if needed and two more courtrooms.&8221;

Clark said the early schematic design will use all of the Second Avenue to Third Avenue northeast block, plus all of the one-block portion of Third Avenue Northeast to be vacated and 125 feet of the second block (Third Avenue to Fourth Avenue Northeast) leaving 175 feet (city blocks are 300 feet square) for a landscaped greenspace north of the building.

It only reopened some queries as to why the facilities couldn&8217;t be expanded.

Eugene Novak was the first in the March 18 audience to question the county&8217;s plans for the Robbins block across First Street Northeast from the courthouse.

&8220;We are not here to talk about the Robbins block tonight,&8221; Richard P. Cummings, Mower County Board chairman, told Novak.

Still, the Robbins block became an often-debated issue.

The county&8217;s response: The building will go to make room for geothermal cables and possibly more parking.

Dick Pacholl, Austin City Council member, questioned early plans to turn a two-block portion of First Street Northeast on the west side of the new facilities into a one-way southbound street with diagonal parking.

&8220;What about the Austin Fire Department and their trucks responding to emergencies and not being able to go that way north to Fourth Avenue?&8221; Pacholl asked.

Garry Elllingson, former Mower County jail administrator and county commissioner, also questioned the intent to use diagonal parking unless the street was widened.

The county&8217;s response was the plan was not &8220;set in stone&8221; and it came with the city&8217;s acquiescence, according to Oscarson.

That would be questioned later in the meeting.

Roger Christenson, a retired pilot who was attending his first meeting on the issue, wanted to know, &8220;If you&8217;re only going to use a portion of that second block and you plan to acquire the Robbins block, why can&8217;t you move the whole thing one block south?&8221;

Christenson also wanted to know if county officials were &8220;sensitive&8221; to the north &8220;backside&8221; of the building to the Paramount Theatre district&8217;s patrons.

The county response to Christenson&8217;s first question was vacating the heavily-traveled Second Avenue Northeast section would create unfathomable traffic congestion n the area.

As far as &8220;sensitivity&8221; to the building&8217;s exterior view, the county response was that would be attractively designed, but with function, not form, the first consideration. &8220;There&8217;s no really good backside to any building and a lack of dollars to spend to make it good-looking may be a problem, because the county want&8217;s this building to be functional first,&8221; said Randy Lindemann, a KKE architect.

Seeking more transparency

John Martin, Austin City Council member, caused the most animated discussion of the evening.

After listening to the county&8217;s assertions, the city had been made aware of the early plans for rerouting traffic, use of the Robbins block and other related issues. Martin said the city staff representative at the early meetings &8220;hasn&8217;t told us what you&8217;re telling us.&8221;

&8220;You better get your stories straight,&8221; Martin said, sounding obviously agitated. &8220;This is a good example of non-transparent government.&8221;

Cummings attempted to allay Martin&8217;s fears the city was not privy to all of the county&8217;s plans.

&8220;The mayor, Jim Hurm and Jon Erichson have been at every one of our meetings,&8221; Cummings said.

&8220;That&8217;s one of the reasons we&8217;re having this meeting tonight,&8221; said Ray Tucker, county commissioner. &8220;So that everyone, the public, too, will know what&8217;s in the works.&8221;

The Rev. Marvin Repinski, a retired Methodist minister who teaches theological courses at Riverland Community College, brought up a request.

&8220;You say this is going to cost the taxpayers $30 million,&8221; Repinski said, &8220;Can you promise us that? Can you put that in writing that it won&8217;t cost more than $30 million?&8221;

The county&8217;s response came from county coordinator Oscarson.

&8220;That would be more of a political promise, I think, than anything else,&8221; he said.

No one agreed to make that promise.