Scramble on to find funding for new justice center


April 21, 2023

Contributed photo from Carlton County

Cost overruns at the new Carlton County jail and courts facility have officials scrambling about where to get more than $20 million to finish the facility.

Carlton County voters likely remember passing a local-option sales tax last November to pay for construction of a new jail and courts facility in Carlton.

The half-cent addition onto the sales tax was passed overwhelmingly, garnering 89 percent of the vote. With collections starting this month, the sales tax will collect $60 million over 30 years - specifically to pay for the new justice center. Part of the appeal of the sales tax was billed as spreading the cost of the justice center onto visitors, in addition to residents.

Several months later, the prospect of a property tax levy increase still looms, as finishing costs for the justice center could be as high as an additional $22.5 million, beyond what the sales tax will reap.

"We'd have to raise the levy just for that between 5 and 7 percent, which would just be murder," county board chairman Dick Brenner said.

County officials blame the legislature for failing to pass a bonding bill last year, and say they're desperately trying to lobby for state money. They cite county residents' contribution to the $17.5 billion state surplus in their efforts to recoup funding.

Meanwhile, local state legislators seem to have little traction in a DFL-controlled legislature, and priorities other than the justice center.

"This local issue is one that should have been addressed in the past," wrote Rep. Jeff Doseth, R-Silver Township, in response to questions about the project.

He was referencing, in part, the previous legislature adjourning in May 2022 without passing a bonding bill for major projects throughout the state. Funding for the justice center was in the bonding bill at the time, but not this time around.

Additional costs

The Pine Knot News reached out to state and local elected officials to better understand how the county property owners could be left holding such a substantial amount of the bag when it comes to the justice center.

Without a solution, "the $22.5 million or whatever it is we have yet to bond for would probably hit taxpayers," Brenner said.

Brenner and fellow commissioner Marv Bodie were part of a meeting earlier this month featuring Dotseth and Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, in addition to county attorney Lauri Ketola and sheriff Kelly Lake.

"We're doing our best to see what we can do to get something out of St. Paul," Bodie said.

Bodie disagreed with the characterization of Justice Center costs as overruns. Instead, inflation and an accelerated timeline on the center have resulted in a project that he said has necessarily gotten ahead of itself.

Under threat from the Minnesota Department of Corrections of closing the county's existing jail, the county forged ahead over the past two years with the joint jail and court facility. They solicited legislature approval for the local sales tax option, followed that with the voter referendum set at a maximum $60 million, and started construction last August.

The start of construction subsequently has meant the center no longer qualifies to be part of a bonding, or borrowing, bill.

Instead, the county is using its economic development director, Mary Finnegan, to lobby for cash to pay for the remainder of the project.

Nobody seems to know what that cost will be, citing inflation for building materials and construction costs, as well as soft costs such as furniture that were not part of the $60 million sales tax option.

"We don't know completely what the final cost is going to be yet," Bodie said.

Because the foundation of the building is in place, it's unlikely the county will leave portions of the building unfinished to spare costs, Bodie said.

"Since we've been monkeying around, construction inflation has gone up about 10 percent a year, and the price of materials and labor inflation for construction are going up fast," Bodie said. "We're locked in to where we're at with the construction project."

Sen. Rarick addressed the topic of needing cash for the project.

"The major hurdle we are facing is that since the project has started it is no longer a bondable project," Rarick wrote in response to a newspaper inquiry. "It will require [it] to be funded by cash. As things sit now, there is talk [that] the whole [bonding] bill will be done with cash."

Regarding their meeting with legislators, Brenner said it was the wrong time for Carlton County to be represented by Republican lawmakers given the DFL's full control of the legislature and governor's office.

"It makes it a little more difficult for our legislators to get things done," Brenner said. "One's a rookie [Dotseth], and the other guy a senator, and they're doing all they can do - they keep telling us that."

Brenner said the legislators have also prioritized other projects, including technical college bonding in Rarick's hometown Pine City, and the $5 million project to increase capacity of the Lake Superior water pipeline system between Duluth and Sappi in Cloquet. Both legislators voted against the current bonding bill circulating in the legislature - a bill that did not feature the justice center to begin with.

"The idea that Rep. Dotseth and I voted against the project is just flat out wrong," Rarick said.

"The fact this project was not in the bill was a major factor in me voting against it," Dotseth said.

Outside help

One potential saving grace of the project: a 16-bed portion of the new 80-bed jail is being reserved for "justice-involved females." Sources say it's much-needed programming and has been an attractive component to legislators outside of the local area.

"We think we may be able to do that," Brenner said. "A number of female legislators are strongly supporting the female program part of our new jail. We could get lucky."

Doseth has authored a pair of bills aimed at helping the county - one for a $20 million grant and another for $25 million to fund the female justice component of the facility. Both have been referred to the Capital Investment committee, under the direction of Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis. So far, the bills have not been heard by the committee, and county officials believe it'll take DFL support to make that happen.

Lee did not respond to a message asking for comment on the bills.

To help whip up support for the new jail, Carlton County has solicited the help of John Ongaro, St. Louis County's intergovernmental relations director and a respected lobbyist for major project funding. Ongaro is lobbying for the Justice Center on Carlton County's behalf, Brenner said. The legislative session is expected to adjourn May 22.

In talking with commissioners, the newspaper asked about the referendum and the perception that voters were funding the Justice Center in full.

"If you look at the ballot question, it didn't say '100 percent pay for it,'" Bodie said.

Indeed, the ballot question referred to "a majority of the costs" being funded by the local option sales tax.

But up to $22.5 million uncovered?

"We haven't given up," Brenner said. "We explained [to lawmakers], 'You've got to do what is right.' All the people in Carlton County are affected by this."


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