by CHRIS ROGERS
The Winona County Board has to do something before the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) closes the current Winona County Jail on October 1, 2021. Last week, the board-appointed Jail Advisory Committee presented four options to the County Board — ranging from “doing nothing” to building a $22-million new jail. Most County Board members are still reading through the committee’s over 200-page report, but they already have some questions, ideas, and opinions.
Although other options that rely on exporting inmates to neighboring counties would be less expensive upfront, the Jail Advisory Committee recommended that the County Board construct a new jail because, over time, the cost of shuttling inmates back and forth for court dates would make those options as expensive or more expensive than building a new jail, according to the committee’s calculations.
County Board member Chris Meyer has attended many of the Jail Advisory Committee’s meetings over the past year — even before she was elected last fall — and said she has read the committee’s report twice now. “I’m open to questions and answers and looking at ideas, but it certainly looks to me from the data that’s presented that if the do-nothing option ultimately costs us as much as the [new-jail] option, that’s a data-driven decision I can support.” Asked if she trusted the committee’s analysis and cost calculations, Meyer responded, “I guess if anyone can poke any holes in the presentations … and if we come to see that some assumptions are wrong, then that may change my mind. But the evidence so far looks pretty good.”
“I’m not surprised,” County Board member Marcia Ward responded when asked about her reaction to the committee’s recommendation. “From the get-go the people who volunteered on the committee were very pro-Winona-County-has-to-do-its-own-thing,” she stated, referring to Winona County having its own jail. In an interview last week, Ward said that, so far, she had read the report’s main conclusions and skimmed the remainder of the report. Ward acknowledged she has more homework to do, and said she would be looking to see whether the committee and county staff truly studied all options and whether their cost projections are skewed. “I do have to question some of the research … because I do represent the general public and not the criminal justice system. I have to answer to the people who have to pay for this,” she stated. County officials estimated that debt payments on a $22-million jail would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an extra $42 per year in property taxes for the next 20 years. The owner of a $500,000 commercial property would pay an extra $538 per year, and farms would pay an extra $1.45 per acre of homestead property and an extra $2.18 per acre of non-homestead property, according to the report.
“I really need to look through the whole study,” County Board member Greg Olson said when asked for his opinion. “There’s a lot to go through in the next month before the 19th,” he stated, referring to a meeting on March 19, when the County Board plans to discuss what to do. While there is sure to be disagreement, Olson said he hoped the County Board could reach consensus on a solution.
Winona County Board member Steve Jacob is also still reading the report. Like Ward, he expressed a little skepticism about the committee’s cost projections. “My sense is that those are probably worst-case scenarios on transporting. There are probably better ways to do it,” he said. However, Jacob appeared to be open to building a new jail. He seemed focused not on whether Winona County needs a new jail, but on what size it should be. The jail’s average daily population in 2017 was just 49 inmates. The committee’s report forecasts an significant uptick in incarceration rates and recommends a new jail with 100 regular beds plus another 30 beds for special needs — such as holding inmates in mental health crisis or temporarily segregating dangerous inmates. Maybe the county could get by with a smaller jail and continuing to export some inmates when necessary, Jacob suggested. “I still don’t feel like transporting out is a bad thing,” Jacob stated. “Transporting everybody daily, that might be a problem.” Jacob added, “My mind is open, and I’m going to do my homework.”
Citizens can read the report for themselves by visiting www.co.winona.mn.us and clicking on “Jail Advisory Committee Report.”