Houghton County OKs jail work group

HOUGHTON — Houghton County will create a work group to evaluate how large a new jail should be.

Commissioners approved the creation of the group at their monthly meeting Wednesday.

The task force had been suggested by Tom Cremonte, a risk consultant with Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority and former Livingston County jail administrator who met with Vice Chair Roy Britz, Sheriff Joshua Saaranen and jail administrators in a Zoom meeting.

Britz said the discussion had been “by far the best meeting” he’d attended in 25 years in trying to get a new jail.

Britz said the group would look at state sentencing guidelines, trends in the judicial system and other factors. Saaranen has reached out to the prosecutor’s office and other courthouse personnel, Britz said; other representatives could include hospital personnel, mental health representatives and consultants from the Michigan Department of Corrections.

“They’d be able to come up with an accurate, fair bed size on where we are today and where we’re going in the near future,” he said.

Other board members agreed with the need for a task force.

Until the county knows how many beds are needed, it won’t be able to determine a price estimate or how much might be needed for a millage, said Commissioner Glenn Anderson.

“Houghton County knows Houghton County the best, so once we get that defined, then we can sit down and work on cost and millage and PR and marketing,” he said.

Britz said the inmate population has changed since his law enforcement career began 40 years ago. More inmates have committed serious crimes, he said, and there are also a higher number of female inmates, who need to be housed separately.

“When I was undersheriff, we had four beds for women, we had 10 women there,” he said. “They would just throw them on the floor with mattresses and it was not a good situation.”

Last month, Saaranen notified the state of overcrowded conditions at the jail. There had been 38 inmates, above the jail’s rated capacity of 28. Looking at the list of inmates, Prosecutor Dan Helmer hadn’t seen any he felt comfortable with releasing, he said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Helmer did find three felony cases where the defendants had been awaiting trial for more than a year, including a defendant who had been in the jail for 640 days. Helmer said he had worked to immediately resolve those cases.

“I think two of the three, or all three of them, were sent to the Department of Corrections where they should have been a year and a half ago, and freed up three jail beds,” he said.

The county purchased property on Sharon Avenue at the current First Apostolic Lutheran Church site which will potentially be used for a new jail as well as other county facilities. County Administrator ben Larson said Portage Township has agreed to have the 6.2-acre parcel annexed by the City of Houghton, allowing for the location of county services required to be in the county seat. Larson will bring an annexation petition to the board at its June meeting; after that, he said, it will go to Portage Township and Houghton for formal approval.

Also Wednesday, the board:

• Approved a harbor development project agreement with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which will fund the majority of improvements to make the bathrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The DNR will provide $176,000, while the county will contribute $44,000, from last year’s proceeds from the county marina.

• Approved five remonumentation contracts totaling $66,075. Joe Foster, the county representative for the state remonumentation program, said this year’s surveying will include 33 corners, bringing the percentage of the county having been resurveyed to 41%. Surveyors are retracing the original government survey performed by the General Land Office in 1845 1846

• Approved a Truth in Taxation public hearing for June 11. Rates will be unchanged from last year, said Administrator Ben Larson.

• Heard a presentation from John Sullivan, military program instructor with the Michigan State University Extension office for the Western Upper Peninsula. He also works with veteran outreach to help veterans connect with extension resources.


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