Austin jail part of election debate

Published 9:30 am Monday, May 24, 2010

It’s the $30 million elephant in the county elections.

Even with the new jail and justice center scheduled to be completed before the November elections, the project and the building’s price tag already appear to be an issue still garnering debate on the campaign trail.

According to Commissioner David Hillier, who is seeking re-election in the 3rd District, the jail and justice center likely won’t be the key topic of discussion.

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“It seems like it should be a minor issue in the campaign,” Hillier said.

While the issue may be a decision of the past, a key question remains: Will voters have the jail and justice center on their mind when they mark their ballots in November?

At least three county commissioner candidates had the project on their minds when they filed to challenge incumbents. John Bramwell, Loren Bell Richard and Tony Bennett each cited displeasure with how the jail project was handled as a key inspiration for running.

Still an issue?

Bennett, who is running for in the 4rd District, admitted the decision making about the jail is in the past; however, he said it’s important to look at how the board handled one of the largest building projects in the county’s history.

“While the time for real debate regarding the justice center has come and gone, it’s now up to the voters to decide if the process was handled correctly,” Bennett said via e-mail.

“Further debate may be pointless, but it’s only right that voters examine how the issue was handled, and if they want future spending handled in a similar fashion,” he added. “Should the voter ignore a candidate’s record, and if so, why?”

John Bramwell said he’s running in the 3rd District because he doesn’t think the county has been fiscally prudent concerning their decisions, citing the jail and justice center as an example.

“I’m concerned about some of the long and short terms decisions that the county has made lately,” he said.

He also said he sees a disconnect between the tax payers and elected officials.

Shortly after he filed, Bellrichard said he was unhappy with how the jail and justice center project has affected people’s taxes.

He said his personal lifestyle would be beneficial as a county commissioner, because he wouldn’t support future high-cost projects.

This is now

The jail project dates back about a decade, and the county board initially met with leaders from Freeborn and Steele counties to discuss a joint jail, but both counties chose to open their own jail. Commissioner David Hillier, who is running for re-election, said the jail was not a major issue in the 2002 campaign. It became a major issue in the 2006 campaign when Hillier and Dick Lang were re-elected and Dave Tollefson was elected.

However, Lang noted this is a new election.

“The jail was an issue then. This is now,” Lang said.

Lang, who is seeking re-election in the District 4, said the commissioners didn’t simply decide to build the jail. He said the Department of Corrections told the county they could only continue to operate the jail for so long before it would be forced to close.

When deciding the future of the jail, Lang said the county did everything by the book, and help open meetings for the public to attend.

In 2006, Hillier said a 160-bed jail was discussed, but the size was reduced due to input from the city council, chamber leaders and area citizens. The jail was downsized to a 128-bed facility. Early on, costs looked to be close to $45 million, and the price was gradually whittled to just under $30 million, Hillier said.

“It’s a very significant change from where it started out, and that’s due to public input and the commissioners’ response to it,” Hillier said.

Commissioner Tim Gabrielson was elected shortly after the board decided to build the jail, and he got to view the project both as a citizen and then as a commissioner. He said the board did not take the decision lightly, and they were pressured by the Department of Corrections.

However, Gabrielson said he can understand how people still have questions about the project.

Hillier said he’s heard from people who told him to finish the jail and that they’re sick of hearing about the project. At this point, Hillier said there are few decisions left to be made about the project.

“I don’t know what they would expect to be done with that other than to move into it,” Hillier said

Future projects

While the jail may be an issue of the past to some, future building projects are still a concern. The county is set to start discussions about the future of health and human services this summer.

The board will be faced with three options for the future of health and human services: restructure the lease to keep the offices at Oak Park Mall, move the offices to the Mower County Government Center or build a new energy efficient building on the Robbins Block.

While the jail decisions aren’t a key topic of discussion, Bennett said people should discuss how to move forward and handle the future of health and human services

Bennett argued the county board didn’t properly inform the public of certain statistics when discussing the jail and justice center. For future projects, Bennett said he hopes information about the costs of the projects will be readily available.

Bennett vocally questioned the jail project a few years ago. Bennett served as a spokesman for a group that collected more than 1,000 signatures in support of holding a referendum on the bonding for the jail and justice center.

Hillier said he is hoping to stay at the mall location as long as possible; however, the board will have to begin to prepare for when the lease runs out.

While Lang said he’d like to see the health and human services offices return downtown, he said the board would have to be very mindful of the costs. He supports moving the offices to the government center.


Though it’s not the key issue, managing the jail will be an issue facing the candidate elected to sheriff. In her campaign to be re-elected as sheriff, Terese Amazi said she’s going to focus on her ability to transition to the new jail in a smooth, efficient style.

Sgt. Jeff Ellis said he plans to focus his campaign to be Amazi’s successor on how he be a fiscally conscious option as sheriff. He doesn’t plan to focus on people’s feelings about the jail.

“I can’t dwell on the past,” Ellis said. “I’m not going to second guess on whether it should or shouldn’t have been built.”

However, he admitted the project is still on people’s minds, and it’s not completely out of his mind. While Ellis said his campaign likely won’t focus on the project to build the jail, Ellis said he’s touring similar jail facilities so he is prepared to manage the facility should he be elected sheriff.

Ellis said his campaign will focus on how he can run the sheriff’s department more efficiently than the current leaders.

“I’m certain that I can do this more efficiently than the current administration,” he said.