Stand-alone jail nixed: Board discusses facility not wanted but needed

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Houghton County Commissioner Scott Ala discusses building a new jail, Sheriff’s Office and courthouse during Tuesday’s board meeting. The board said Tuesday it would not spend money on hiring an engineering firm to study the cost of a new facility.

HOUGHTON — The Houghton County Board will not pursue the new study of a stand-alone jail, Sheriff’s Office and courthouse in the city, with members saying voters had already rejected that approach.

Commissioner Scott Ala Tuesday proposed hiring the Indiana engineering firm RQAW about studying the cost of a new jail, Sheriff’s Department and courthouse. He said he had spoken with Houghton City Manager Eric Waara about 100 acres of city property behind Walmart, with which it would be willing to work.

The county has been working on proposals for a $5.5 million, 64-bed jail addition to be built behind the existing courthouse.

“If you ask me personally, do I want a new jail, do I want a new Sheriff’s Department, do I want a new courthouse? Nope, I don’t,” Ala said. “I just don’t. But I think we need one. Between the inmates, the employees and the public, I think this is something we need.”

Ala’s proposal would have relied in part on a 2010 study conducted for that year’s proposal of a $15 million jail, Sheriff’s Department and district court located across from the courthouse. The engineering firm would make a presentation to the board with a proposed cost amount. Like Palosaari’s proposal, he said, it could be built with a design that would reduce costs.

“To get them to come up here, and a local firm to do it, I suspect we would be in the $10-12,000 to do this,” he said. “It would not be free; I’m not even going to try to hide it. Do I think it would be well-spent money? I do, for a second option.”

Ala said new jail designs allow for modular layouts allow for the configuration of cells to be changed to maintain separation between male and female inmates.

He also mentioned issues with the current courthouse, such as wiring problems for the computer system and potential difficulties with firefighters.

“I spoke with a fire chief (who) told me if this building was engulfed in flames, he’d be hard-pressed to send a fireman in here,” he said. “There are so many nooks, crannies, stairways going everywhere.”

Board members said the jail need was too pressing to add more delays. Commissioner Anton Pintar said Ala could explore the option on his own time, but that he wouldn’t support the use of county funds.

“We need the jail addition now,” he said. “We needed it yesterday. I don’t want to see it suddenly delayed moving ahead with the jail addition that Tim has put together. You’re talking about relocating the entire courthouse.”

County Administrator Eric Forsberg said the 2010 vote, in which only 25 percent of voters backed the complex, suggested the county still couldn’t get voter approval.

“We went with the grand plan,” he said. “I think now it’s time to go with the scaled-down version and see if that goes. If not, then we go to the grand plan.”

Board members floated the idea of conducting a survey of county residents to see which option they would prefer.

The board took no action on Ala’s plan.