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Sandy FoDelaying justice center decision could save $10 million

OPINION

In his opening remarks at the Aug. 7 meeting of the Mower County Board of Commissioners, Chairman Dick Lang quoted Abraham Lincoln by saying "a divided house cannot stand," while noting the time had come to reach consensus on the justice center issue.

By the end of the meeting, commissioners had set their budget and reaffirmed the airport as the project site, but only by the slimmest of margins — 3-2 on separate votes.

Since the board’s split decisions were announced, opinion pages in local newspapers have been filled with citizens’ outcries. The Austin City Council has voted to not participate in the project, and instead split off the police department so it may remain downtown. And virtually everyone has been left wondering "what if" Commissioner Dave Tollefson is correct and that a solution could be found that would save taxpayers millions of dollars and keep all county and public safety services together in the downtown area.

Clearly, consensus — among commissioners, city officials and residents — has not yet been reached.

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Next Tuesday, commissioners may get another chance. Lang has listened to constituents and now says he will introduce a motion at the Sept. 11 meeting to reconsider downtown site options. If that motion passes, the city of Austin will be given up to 90 days to work with the county and architects to prepare a new feasibility report for a downtown facility.

The city has already contacted an architectural firm, BKV Group, which in turn, has visited downtown Austin. That firm’s initial assessment is that a downtown location is not only feasible, but may in fact prove to be a less costly option.

Managing Partner Ted Redmond noted in a letter to the city that although property acquisition costs may be higher downtown, site development costs — infrastructure, road and utility construction — likely will be less. A downtown location would also offer the county a "higher level of flexibility" by offering the opportunity to combine new construction with existing facility renovation while encouraging city participation and cost-sharing, according to Redmond.

BKV has designed several government/law enforcement centers, including Freeborn County’s, built in downtown Albert Lea at a cost of $25 million.

The board set a budget of $30 million for a new justice center at the airport site at its Aug. 7 meeting. But that budget does not include costs to demolish the old jail or renovate the existing courthouse property for other purposes. It also doesn’t include city costs to relocate its police department.

Combined, these additional items could add another $6 million to $7 million to the overall project, according to estimates prepared by the county’s architectural firm, KKE. That would bring the total, real cost to taxpayers to $36 million to $37 million.

That’s a lot of money for a county with only 39,000 residents. Even after tapping county reserves, the board is estimating that $27 million in bonds will have to be sold. Every million dollars borrowed will cost the county about $80,000 per year to repay. At the $27 million level, debt retirement will be approximately $2.2 million per year for 20 years. Increased operational expenses will cost another $800,000 per year.

Commissioner Tollefson has been promoting a downtown plan that he estimates will cost $25 million or less. If he is correct — or even close to correct — taxpayers stand to save $10 million to $12 million. Sheriff and police departments could remain together. Downtown would be improved. All county services would be located in one area.

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There are simply too many plusses to discount this option without a serious second opinion. The city and its architects are asking for 90 days to review Tollefson’s plan and other downtown options. That seems like a small price to pay. The answers found in that study could steer the county in a new direction, adding value to taxpayers through cooperation with the city on a downtown location. Or it could confirm, as some now believe, that a green field site is the only viable option.

Either way, it will take only 90 days to find out. Commissioners should vote "Yes" unanimously, and embrace this opportunity to work with the city toward building consensus on this all important issue for public safety, and the future of our city and county. This will be the biggest project the county has ever undertaken. Let’s take a few more weeks to make sure we get it right.

Sandy Forstner is executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

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