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Board hears from Facilities Committee

Fri, Mar 16th, 2001
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By Mike McGrathMonday, March 19, 2001

The Fillmore County Board of Commissioners met with the Facilities Evaluation and Planning Committee last Thursday evening to hear first hand the committees recommendations on the courthouse and other county buildings.

The Board appointed the committee of citizens last summer to look at the current state of the courthouse, the jail, the highway department and the solid waste facilities. In September, the committee recommended the county build a new courthouse next to the new office building and the existing jail.

In October and November the committee met with law enforcement and highway personnel and recommended the existing jail be remodeled to accommodate more prisoners and to meet the requirements of the state Department of Corrections.

Thursday nights meeting was the first face-to-face meeting of the two groups and the commissioners got an earful. After calling the meeting to order, Board Chair Helen Bicknese yielded the chair to Facilities Committee Chair Glen Kopperud, who opened the discussion by explaining how the committee arrived at its recommendation.

"We examined the facilities and we found there were things wrong with the courthouse. Some of these were expensive items," explained Kopperud. "We also looked at the (current) separation of the courthouse and the jail."

Soon, most of the members of the committee joined in the discussion with their thoughts. Larry Miller of Canton said that although the committee didnt examine what the impact of moving the courthouse would be on the City of Preston, the group did believe that Preston needed to be involved in the discussions.

Another member of the committee, Deb Staley of Spring Valley, told the commissioners that the county needed to be "as visionary as possible," and grow into a new facility. She, too, affirmed the need to have the City of Preston involved in the process.

"Little has been done on maintenance in the last 50 years," stated committee member Brigid Eickhoff. Referring to the courthouse building, she added, "Its pretty far gone right now."

Stafford Hansen put it more bluntly: "The County has been derelict in their duty. The building was built in 1957 and it still has the original furnace."

After about twenty minutes of committee testimony as to the decadent state of the 1950s era courthouse, the discussion shifted to what needs to happen and what is already happening.

Citing the need for a 5 to 10 year plan, Larry Miller told the Board that without a plan the county was wasting money on improvements like the current elevator project and its associated electrical system upgrades.

Sheriff Jim Connelly told the gathering that the $2000 study he commissioned with a private firm found that it would cost $1.7 million to add 20 beds onto the existing jail.

Since that study, he has since learned that the National Institute of Corrections will do a no-cost study of the County Jail and make recommendations for improvement.

Referring to other comments made about moving the courthouse next to the jail, Sheriff Connelly said, "I like the common campus ideas."

Judge Robert Benson also noted the need for a courthouse security assessment. He mentioned that it would be possible to have a Judge from St. Paul come down with some U.S. Marshals to conduct the assessment for the county. But, Benson cautioned, the County needs to look at its plans now as the state highway department is planning only one access to Highway 52 near the new office building.

The editor of the Journal, John Torgrimson, spoke on behalf of an informal group of Preston businesses. Torgrimson also pointed out the new highway access plans and the financial and cultural impact that moving the courthouse would have on Preston and its businesses.

Perhaps it was Preston resident and former mayor Dick Nelson who summed it up the best: "We need someone in a leadership role." Besides leadership, Nelson called for a County Facilities Comprehensive Plan that would include a budget for improvements and new construction.

Committee Chair Kopperud agreed. He reiterated Nelsons points, calling for leadership, planning and a budget. "The County has procrastinated for so long," he added.

In closing, Committee member Doug Johnson from Whalan put it bluntly: "Were challenging the commissioners to stay on this, dont put it under the rug." Referring to the many years the Board has discussed the old building, he added, "Lets not be in here seven years from now talking about what needs to be done."

In closing the meeting, Board Chair Helen Bicknese thanked the committee for its work and said the commissioners would look at establishing a new master planning committee that would include commissioners and representatives of the City of Preston, as well as some members of the Facilities committee.

By Mike McGrath

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