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Justice center tops list of 2007 stories

By Karen Colbenson and Tim Ruzek

news@postbulletin.com

Mower County’s long-proposed justice center took a roller-coaster ride in 2007 before eventually landing on a possible final location.

As one of the area’s top issues, the justice center created many meetings, heated discussions, negotiations and studies — and the project hasn’t even broken ground yet for construction.

Early in the year, county officials and city of Austin leaders had planned to locate the facility in the city’s vacant northwest industrial park as a compromise to the county’s preferred site on Austin’s southeast outskirts near the airport. That deal fell through in a mutual agreement, and the county board then reiterated its preference for the airport site along U.S. 218 South.

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The board then voted again in August for the airport site while also deciding to spend up to $30 million on the justice center, with the county borrowing or bonding for up to $27 million of that.

City leaders and citizens eventually put enough pressure on the county to allow a study of downtown for the facility and cause another delay of the project that already had been in the works for about seven years.

After the study came back in November, the county voted 3-2 to support a downtown location in a joint project with the city, which will be responsible for acquiring properties and preparing the land for construction in a two-block site near the current courthouse.

Meanwhile, the county’s jail, under state order, became on Nov. 1 a facility that only can detain inmates for up to 90 days due to the jail being outdated and a lack of progress with the justice center project. Aside from the downtown Austin jail, authorities are boarding inmates at jails in Freeborn and Goodhue counties, as well as in Mitchell County, Iowa.

County board member Dave Tollefson, who helped sway the board to favor a downtown site, was one of several new elected leaders who began their terms in 2007 with the county and Austin City Council.

After a decade under the leadership of Bonnie Rietz, retired Austin police detective Tom Stiehm took over the mayor’s office, leading the city in the fight for a justice center in downtown as well as leading a community discussion on illegal immigration in Austin.

Immigration was a hot topic in Austin this year. Stiehm led an immigration forum in April with several community leaders as panelists, causing a heated debate among activists on both sides of the debate. Some residents accused Stiehm of flip-flopping on the issue, prompting the mayor to issue a report on his immigration policy in September.

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