by ZACH KAYSER
Members of the Winona County Board on Thursday offered their most pointed denial yet that they considered or are considering a juvenile detention facility, despite directing staff to consider one four months ago.
The occasion was the second listening session organized by Engage Winona on behalf of the county, held via Zoom.
After more than an hour of discussing other topics related to the justice system, organizer Brian Voerding asked the commissioners whether the county was planning on constructing a juvenile detention facility.
Commissioner Chris Meyer said she was not considering the idea but also left space in her position for a juvenile delinquent facility in the future, if not a detention facility.
“The answer is ‘no’,” Meyer said. “I don’t have a plan, and … I think what I’ve heard described in the media is something that’s like a jail with locked cells and bars. No, of course I wouldn’t support that. What is the need? That’s really what I really want to hear. And I would certainly want a ton more information about that before I would be willing to make any kind of a financial commitment towards brick and mortar, from the county perspective.”
Asked whether the County Board could commit to providing support options as an alternative to jails, Meyer said she would, “to the extent possible.”
Commissioner Marie Kovecsi said she was surprised to still be fielding the question of whether the county was working on a juvenile detention center. “This question keeps coming up, and we keep answering it, and I just keep being surprised that it keeps coming back up,” she said.
Kovecsi said the board had actively “discarded the idea” of any sort of juvenile detention center.
She referenced a vote in January 2021 wherein the board approved plans for the jail that did not include a juvenile facility or renovating the old jail. “The board accepted an option from the design and construction committee to proceed with an 80-bed jail option with no plans for juvenile resources and no plans for revamping the old jail,” Kovecsi said. “We did make that decision. So there are no plans [for a juvenile detention center].”
It appeared Kovecsi was referring to a meeting that actually took place Dec. 22, 2020. It was at that meeting that the board decided to build a jail with 80 beds as opposed to other sizes that had been considered, in alignment with a recommendation from the Jail Design and Construction Committee (JDCC).
At that same Dec. 22 meeting, Meyer, Kovecsi and Commissioner Greg Olson voted to direct the JDCC “to conduct further study and make a recommendation regarding the need for a juvenile holding facility to possibly be added in the future.” They have not voted on the idea since that meeting.
After Kovecsi answered the question at Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Marcia Ward chimed in. She said that although the county had sought $5 million from the state legislature in 2020 for a juvenile detention facility, it was “without any research or any fact finding or anything, it was just a concept that was thrown out to try and get some money out of the general legislature.”
“Since then, the board has taken no action, but some staff have had — in particular, I think [Jail Administrator] Steve Buswell — some conversations with some of the Department of Corrections people as to what would this possibly look like, what kind of staffing would be required .... but none of that has been shared with the board at this time.”
The JDCC has repeatedly discussed a juvenile detention facility since the board meeting in December, and as of March, County Administrator Ken Fritz informed the board that staff was researching it as an option. In November 2020, architects presented plans to the JDCC that included space for juvenile detention in the new jail, although the JDCC did not select that option.
Asked about her vote to conduct further study on a juvenile detention facility, Kovecsi emphasized no money was allocated by the board for such a facility. “You can consider it all you want, but if there’s no money, you’re not going anywhere,” she said.