WINONA — With the Winona County Board of Commissioners set to vote on a pair of items concerning the proposed new jail, two commissioners balked at some of the wording involved in hiring a construction manager for the job.
"I can’t, in good faith, go to the public and ask for $25 million with all that has changed in the last six months," said Commissioner Steve Jacob. "I can’t in good conscience do that."
While no design has been finalized and no price on the new jail determined, a line in the agreement to hire a construction manager did indicate the cost of the project could be as high as $25 million.
Jacob said that between the lower usage of jails due to COVID-19 and ongoing discussion of changing how law enforcement and criminal justice are handled in this country, especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, paying $25 million for a jail seems like burdening taxpayers in Winona County with a boondoggle. He added that the jail's cost would be spread out for years, meaning taxpayers would be footing the bill for something that might be obsolete, like the last jail the county built.
Commissioner Chris Meyer said the cost mentioned in the agreement was not binding, and should not be causing this much discussion.
"We're not being asked to make those final decisions," Meyer said. "Yes, things are in flux right now in this country. But we can’t just get an extension (from the state Department of Corrections) because the county has waited so long. It is delay on our part that has put us in this position."
The current jail in Winona County cannot be used much longer because its permit from the state is running out. Winona County either needs a plan in place to replace the jail with a new one, or have plans to send inmates to jails in other counties. Currently, all female inmates plus male inmates with stays longer than 90 days are sent to Houston County.
"We’ve seen the financial costs, and we know to do nothing will eventually cost us more," Meyer said.
Jacob said he'd rather spend money sending inmates to Houston County for another year than rush into making a wrong decision. Representing a rural part of Winona County, Jacob added that his constituents already suffer under too great a tax burden without adding an overpriced jail to their bill.
"The city of Winona alone provides more than half the tax burden for this county," Meyer countered.
Commissioner Marcia Ward agreed with Jacob, saying she'd prefer a smaller jail, especially with people talking more and more about alternatives to incarceration.
In the end, the motion to hire a construction manager for the project passed 3-2, with Ward and Jacob voting no.