County sets jail budget at $15 million

At a special 5 p.m. meeting Tuesday, Ward County Commissioners set the budget for the jail expansion project at $15 million.

“We’ve been sitting on this long enough, it’s decision time,” said Chairman Jerome Gruenberg at the beginning of the meeting. He hopes for bidding to begin in winter for a spring construction start date for the two and a half to three year construction project.

This new set budget is four and a half million dollars over the $10.5 million estimated budget when Ward County Ordinance 2012-1 was written for voter approval in November 2012. The ordinance allowed for a half-cent sales tax to pay off bonding issues to fund the jail project, the estimated $15.3 million Ward County office building project to be connected to the courthouse, $3.5 million in courthouse renovation and $10 million for road and infrastructure repair projects to fix the devastation caused by the 2011 Souris River Flood.

Actual revenue since the tax began at the start of 2012 has exceeded the estimated revenue of about $7.9 million to this point by over $19,000 a month. Ward County Auditor Devra Smestad said there has only been one slow month, “if you want to call it a slow month,” but that the high rate of return has held firm. She still gave a conservative estimate that the monthly return will be $15,000 a month over projected earnings.

This allows for a faster completion time for collecting the necessary money for the projects, and Commissioner Alan Walter figured that at the $19,000 per month leeway, the entire debt can be collected in just 6.67 years, which gives taxpayers a bit more of a break than the seven years projected in earlier discussions. The absolute cut-off point for the tax is written in the ordinance as being at year’s end 2022.

Commissioner Shelly Weppler first made a motion for a budget of $15.8 million, citing the high estimates of construction-manager-at-risk Adolph & Peterson Construction, based in Minneapolis. Discussion followed before a vote where Commissioner John Fjeldahl became leery of giving the company too much extra breathing room and that he certainly wouldn’t make that decision with his money.

A & P had given the $15.8 million estimate on the county’s preferred option, called Option A, because it was to be so ridiculously over the original budget that it wasn’t worth the time for a true breakdown in cost. They had priced the construction costs at $300 per square foot for the building. Mark Ludgatis, a principal at the St. Paul, Minn., based BWBR architecture firm, which specializes in jail projects, thinks only the jail portions of the building would come in at $300 per square foot while administrative areas would come in at $225 per square foot.

A further breakdown of the building should result in significant savings over the high-end estimate. Weppler, with the approval of Walter, who seconded her first motion, dropped the budget to $15 million and it passed unanimously.

The $300 per square foot estimates for three of the jail expansion options came in at $15.8 million for Option A, $12.1 million for Option C and $12.6 million for Option B. The last one is just like the preferred option but with certain administrative areas built to be shells to house later finishing of the project in the expectation that another funding source would arrive later.

The preferred option would allow for a new Sheriff’s Department headquarters within the building, which will include an armory, training room, additional rooms for lawyers to meet with their clients and office space for all staff with a rank of sergeant or above. In the current headquarters, 14 staff members meeting this criteria share nine offices.

The plan also represents significant savings in staffing costs over the long run. Sheriff Steve Kukowski said that staffing two people to monitor the jail every single hour of every single day of the year, which is required, costs $330,000 a year. In this design, two staffers can monitor two of the three jail floors at once, while two other staffers monitor the third. The multi-level design would represent a savings of one third over picking a design that forces two staffers on each floor.