by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County’s plans for discussing police facilities with the city of Winona took an abrupt turn last week after city leaders nixed further consideration of the county-owned Law Enforcement Center (LEC), the current home of the Winona Police Department (WPD) and Winona County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO). Instead, the city suggested building a new WPD-WCSO facility at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. County Board members — some of whom only learned of the city’s proposal through this newspaper — said they were willing to consider the idea but expressed great reluctance to spend millions more on criminal justice facilities after borrowing $28 million for a new jail. Interim County Administrator Maureen Holte said she plans to discuss with the County Board in early February what comes next.
Two weeks ago, Winona County officials were inviting city of Winona leaders to discuss whether the LEC could be renovated to meet the WPD’s needs, but last Tuesday, city staff and consultants told the City Council the LEC was unworkable. Although the largely vacant old jail at the LEC offers enough space to potentially double the WPD’s current facilities to nearly 20,000 square feet, city staff and consultants said that 39,000 square feet is needed and that the LEC’s lack of parking and other facilities rule it out as an option.
“They have to make that decision for themselves,” County Board Chair Chris Meyer said of the city nixing the current LEC. “That’s the most I can tell you.” Last fall, Meyer suggested a joint City Council-County Board meeting to discuss the current LEC, arguing remodeling could be less expensive than a new WPD facility, but she stressed that the decision was the city’s to make.
Asked if the City Council’s vote last Tuesday was the end of the road for conversations about keeping the WPD at the LEC, County Board member Greg Olson said, “I think it’s been the end of the road for a long time. They were going through the motions at best. I think staff made up their minds.” He continued, “We always hear as elected officials we’ve got to be working together, counties and cities and states … but it always comes down to this. It’s almost like the elected officials defer to the employees and something like this happens. I’m not saying it’s the wrong decision. It may be made in the wrong way … If elected officials would say, ‘Make it work,’ I would think that maybe they can make it work.” Pointing to the amount of space at the old jail, Olson said, "Maybe it can’t [work], but I believe it could.”
As for the city’s proposal for a possible new WPD-WCSO facility, Meyer and Olson were open to the idea but wary of or resistant to a major investment by the county.
The city proposed the new facility at the ProBuild block — the 150 block of West Second Street, next door to the LEC — and it is one of eight options for new police and fire stations the city is studying. A specific cost estimate for the idea hasn’t yet been developed, but city officials have been referencing a $42 million cost estimate developed in 2022 for separate police and fire stations. Winona is seeking $21 million from the state for the project and eyeing local-property-tax-backed debt to fund the remainder.
It’s unclear how much input city officials sought from the county. The County Board has not yet discussed the idea of a new WPD-WCSO facility. Ubl said he discussed the idea with Holte and Sheriff Ron Ganrude earlier this winter. “We had high-level conversations,” Holte said. “We did not get into this level of detail that they are having now.”
“There’s a lot of analysis that would need to go into it if that’s a direction the board would want to entertain,” Holte said. It would require more study of what the county’s needs are, she noted. Regarding the price, Holte added, “I think this would be a big ask when we just built the jail or are building the jail.”
“If I was going to ask the community to make a bigger investment,” Meyer said, “I don’t think I would ask them to invest in law enforcement again, given that we are just in the process of making this big investment in the jail. So from that standpoint, I don’t think I am interested as a commissioner in advancing an agenda to make a big investment in law enforcement.” Meyer said she saw preventative social services and mental health care as more urgent needs.
“I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, but we don’t need a new sheriff’s office,” Olson said of a new WPD-WCSO facility. “We don’t need a new building. We already have a sheriff’s office.” He added, “So I don’t know. I’m not saying no to anything, but I don’t like it when the employees are wagging the elected [officials] on what they will or will not support or consider, I think it’s kind of backward.”
Olson also highlighted the combined cost to taxpayers of the county’s $28 million jail, Winona Area Public Schools’ upcoming $94 million referendum, and the city’s public safety facility plans. These local governments have to work together, he said, adding “…. Part of what I think we’re expected to do is not continue the mistakes of the past.”
At the same time, both Meyer and Olson saw some possibilities in the city’s concept.
Meyer suggested that the county could potentially rent space for training events at a city-owned police station at the ProBuild block. “Maybe that’s an option. I wouldn’t rule that out, but I don’t see that we have to rush to close the door or jump on with any program with them,” she said.
Olson floated the idea of tearing down the current LEC for parking. Currently, the ProBuild property is being used for parking. “Everything is worth considering, but there’s a price tag and feasibility. We have a large LEC with a lot of space that maybe could be utilized in other ways. Certainly the sheriff’s department can use some of it, or does it make sense for [the LEC] to go away? Does parking make sense versus the ProBuild — cooperating over there? I’d like to see some level of cooperation. That’s what people have asked us to do.”
Ganrude said that, when the new jail was in its planning phases, he had hoped renovations to the LEC would be part of that project, and he noted that while the LEC can meet the WCSO’s needs, it is in need of repairs. Olson said the county opted against renovating the WCSO and WPD offices as part of the jail project due to the already high cost of replacing the jail.
Holte said she plans to ask the County Board on February 7 about plans for the LEC moving forward and whether the board is interested in exploring a new WPD-WCSO facility.
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