Task force narrows options
HOUGHTON — Houghton County’s jail task force chose two options Wednesday night to study further.
A facility on Dodge Street across from the courthouse and a new complex somewhere within Houghton were identified by task force members as the best options for a new county jail.
The two other choices under consideration — Camp Kitwen, and an addition behind the courthouse — found minimal support.
The group had split into four committees to evaluate each option. Each presented the pros and cons of their proposal Wednesday.
At the end of the meeting, members voted for up to two choices to pursue. Dodge Street led with 30, followed by 21 for the new complex somewhere in Houghton. Trailing far behind were Kitwen with three votes and last year’s jail expansion with none.
Three of the four committee heads endorsed the Dodge Street option as the best compromise between cost and meeting the county’s long-term needs.
Jared Hyrkas, who chaired the Dodge Street committee, said it benefitted by being close to existing county facilities and other agencies. The space also offers more flexibility than some other options, and is on land already owned by the county.
The county would also be able to preserve the parking deck behind the courthouse, the proposed site for last year’s jail expansion.
“That’s one thing that stuck out to us that may have turned the voters off this last time, was getting rid of infrastructure that’s already there,” he said.
In that scenario, the courthouse would be able to use the existing jail and sheriff’s offices for storage space, possibly alleviating some space concerns at the courthouse.
Construction costs were projected at $18 to $20 million, making it the second-most expensive option. Hyrkas suggested trimming the number of beds from 110 to 90 — 60 for jail inmates and 30 for the work camp. He also proposed making the exterior look more “institutional,” which he said could reduce the “Taj Mahal” perception some voters had in 2010.
To promote whichever plan the county decides upon, Hyrkas said the county should be more active on social media than in prior campaigns, as well as doing polls to gauge the people’s feelings on the project.
“We need to find a way that everyone is on board with what we decide as a group,” he said.
The second-most popular idea was building an all-new complex within Houghton. That committee explored two ideas: a combined jail, sheriff’s office and district court, and a more comprehensive option also including a new courthouse. Evan McDonald, who chaired the committee, laid out several problems identified by courthouse staff, including security problems based on design and lack of space, inadequate space for record storage and the lack of an incident command center in case of an emergency.
The cost would vary from $22 to $34 million, depending on whether or not a new courthouse was included in the plan, said McDonald.
The $22 million option would meet state requirements for keeping services in the county seat, but also split county locations, and create more manpower demands on the sheriff’s department, McDonald said.
“It would be cheaper to build a justice center somewhere within the city limits than the full-on new courthouse complex, but it’s still going to have added expenses associated with it compared to the Dodge Street scenario,” he said.
The task force will also receive numbers on the operating costs under each proposal. One of the three Kitwen voters, Hyrkas, clarified his vote, telling the group it needed better numbers on operating costs to explain to the public why it was no longer under consideration.
The Kitwen group also identified that as something it would need before making recommendations.
At around $12 million, Kitwen had the lowest construction costs. At 88 acres, the former minimum-security site also had potential for expansion, said committee member Frank Taddeucci.
That number did not include additional costs for transport and staffing, as inmates would have to be taken to and from Houghton for court appearances. Also, the state requires the sheriff’s department, district court and several county offices to be at the county seat, located in Houghton.
People on the committee who had worked on the jail said the design would have to be revamped so that jail supervisors would be able to have eyes on all inmates.
“To correct that, you would have to boost the cost of that report you have considerably,” Taddeucci said.
Kitwen’s isolation also makes it more difficult for backup to arrive quickly in case of incidents at the jail, said Houghton Police Chief John Donnelly. In Houghton, additional officers can come from Hancock, Houghton and Michigan Tech. The same is true at district court, Donnelly said, recalling an incident where a fight broke out in the cramped hallway.
“Those things are very needed, and those things come up,” he said.
The jail addition behind the courthouse, which was narrowly voted down in 2018, was also rejected. The cost analysis and recent architectural plans are points in its favor, as well as proximity to the courthouse, said committee chairperson Ray Smith. But it could also require the county to buy additional property and close off the street behind the jail, which would drive up costs. It also had less expandability than other options.
“It had more drawbacks, and it was really just a band-aid in the long run,” he said.
The next task force meeting will be 6 p.m., Oct. 2, at the Houghton County Circuit Court room.