by CHRIS ROGERS
After being delayed for nearly a month, officials expect construction to begin on the new Winona County Jail next week. Meanwhile the County Board is pursuing a sales tax referendum to pay off $28 million in debt financing for the project, and the county is redoing bids for one portion of the construction work after a contracting firm accused the county of unfairly rejecting its low bid.
After years of planning for how to replace the county’s substandard 1970s jail, construction on a new jail is set to begin next week, pending state approval. The project will be a lengthy one, expected to last up to 18 months, plus a few months of staff training needed before the facility can open, hopefully by December 2023.
Asked how reaching this moment felt, Winona County Jail Administrator and Project Manager Steve Buswell was not ready to celebrate. “I think right now it’s kind of like waiting for a baby or a new car. You’re excited, but you’ve got that apprehension,” he said. “I think the true excitement will come when we get to the next stage and we can show people what we built,” he added.
The new estimated opening date is six months later than the county’s initial goal of June 2023. Two things have delayed work this fall, Buswell said. First, the county needed to conduct soil testing to check for possible contamination at the jail site, a former auto dealership purchased by the state of Minnesota for the construction of the Winona bridge. The county is still waiting for those results, Buswell said. Second, the state building inspectors have yet to approve the county’s design for the new jail, though Buswell expects they will sign off on it later this week.
Once that approval is received, contractors can begin removing top soil and constructing the new jail’s foundation. “Now we’re dancing with Mother Nature because we’re starting to deal with colder weather,” Buswell said. “The sooner they can get the foundation in, the better.”
County votes to seek $28M sales tax referendum
Then there’s the question of how to fund the new jail. “There’s a lot of the public that thinks there’s some magic pot of money you build jails with — not all on local taxpayers,” County Board Chair Marcia Ward said.
Sadly, there is no magic pot. The county is in the process of borrowing $28 million to finance construction, and paying off that debt will cost the county over $1 million a year from 2023 through 2046.
Normally, the county would raise property taxes to cover those debt payments. However, the County Board voted unanimously on Tuesday to seek a ballot referendum in 2022 on whether to charge a local sales tax to pay back the debt instead.
Because local sales tax revenues are much higher than property tax revenues, it would take a fairly large increase in property taxes to cover the jail debt, while a sales tax increase of less than one cent on every dollar would be sufficient. County Board members argue that a sales tax would be felt less acutely by local residents and businesses, and the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce has voiced support for the idea.
With Tuesday’s vote, the County Board formally asked the Minnesota Legislature to approve special legislation this spring that would allow a referendum. Getting voters to approve the ballot question may be a bigger challenge.
“If we get this passed, we have to do a lot of PR and a lot of explaining,” Ward said.
Local governments in Minnesota are generally barred from spending public funds to promote referenda, so public relations work to advocate for ballot questions must be done by third parties.
Responding to a question from the board, Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman said that if a referendum fails in 2022, the county could try again to pass a referendum in the future.
After contractor’s protest, county to redo bids
The County Board is also redoing bids for one portion of the jail project — supplying jail cells — after a contractor’s protest. Earlier this fall, the county received two bids for the cells, one from Pauly Jail Building Company for $4.68 million and one from Cornerstone Detention for $4.55 million. Under state law, the county must accept the lowest responsible bid, and the county appeared to initially accept Cornerstone’s low bid, then rejected it, saying it did not meet the specifications.
Cornerstone disputed that decision, and after meeting in closed session due to the threat of a lawsuit, the County Board decided to scrap both proposals and rebid the contract from scratch.
“The bid was contested, and in order to make it a clean bid, rather than trying to go through some sort of litigation or some process that would delay the project … it just made sense to make it all clear,” Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz said of the decision.
Buswell said the main issue with Cornerstone’s bid was that it did not include galvanized steel, which the county wants. A Cornerstone representative said the type of cell the company proposed met all of the written specifications. Buswell said he was unsure whether the new call for bids would specify that galvanized steel is required but said that using that material was his goal.