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Portage Township board to discuss 425 agreement for potential jail site

PORTAGE TOWNSHIP — Portage Township Board will meet Monday to discuss an agreement that would temporarily transfer the site proposed for a future Houghton County jail and other county offices to Houghton to give the county time to build a new jail.

The Public Act 425 agreements allow for one unit of government to conditionally transfer another unit of property to another. The 6.2-acre site is on the north side of Sharon Avenue. It borders Houghton, which as the county seat, would need to be the site of any jail. State law also requires the sheriff’s department to be adjacent to the sheriff’s office. Tentative plans also call for the district court to be located at the site.

The agreement would last for nine years, said Portage Township Trustee Bill Fink. If by the end of that time, the county has not built a new jail meeting national and professional standards, it would revert back to Portage Township. If the jail is built to those standards, the property will transfer to Houghton permanently once it opens.

Fink said the standards used would be the same ones consulted in developing the 2010 and 2018 jail proposals. They include number of beds, common day areas and space for attorney-client conferences.

“What I don’t want to have happen is to have a couple of double-wide trailers moved in and a chain-link fence with barbed-wire fence moved around it and somebody calling it a new jail,” he said. “That would simply not be acceptable. This is designed to encourage the county to proceed expeditiously to make this happen.”

Fink said the nine-year provision also protects the township in case the county is unsuccessful at passing a millage. A portion of the former Houghton High School site across the street from the courthouse, where the 2010 proposal would have put a jail, has since been sold for private development. The 425 agreement would terminate immediately if the county attempts to sell any part of the property during the nine years.

“If it were to go to a private developer, it would be a great place to put a 15-story luxury hotel,” Fink said. “We very much support the idea of the justice center being there, but if there’s no jail, and it’s going to go to commercial development, then we want that development to be on the township tax rolls.”

Once Houghton County finalizes the purchase of the property from First Apostolic Lutheran Church, the county will send Portage Township and Houghton notice that the county now owns the parcel, and wants to have the jurisdiction transferred. The parcel would then be transferred to Houghton.

Portage Township’s board and Houghton’s council will review the 425 agreement and have it reviewed by legal counsel for any adjustments. Assuming everything passes muster, the agreement would take effect Jan. 1, Fink said.

Three previous jail millage proposals have failed, most recently one in 2018 that would have built a jail addition on the back of the courthouse. Fink said he believes many others had voted against it for the same reason he did: that it was “it was the wrong proposal at the wrong time at the wrong place.”

By contrast, he thinks a proposal for a secure modern jail away from residential areas would be successful.

“Frankly, if we don’t do it this time, from what I’ve heard there’s a fair chance the state will order our county jail closed, and we’ll have to pay to transport our prisoners between Ontonagon and Baraga, or the federal government might step in and order our county to build a new jail,” he said. “It’s really important that our county commissioners vigorously, strenuously support the concept that this is the right place, and the right time, for a modern jail. We have to have people understand that it won’t be any resort hotel.”

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