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County files petition for city to annex possible jail site

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette The Houghton County Board of Commissioners discusses a petition for Houghton to annex 6.2 acres of Portage Township land for the site of a potential new jail. The board approved the petition, which now goes to the two municipalities.

HOUGHTON — The Houghton County board took another step closer to a new county jail Tuesday night.

The board approved filing a petition with Houghton and Portage Township for the city to annex 6.2 acres of township land on Sharon Avenue. The county closed on the First Apostolic Lutheran Church property earlier this year. Some county offices could be relocated to the existing building, while the county also hopes to seek a millage to build a new jail on the property.

Houghton annexing the land allows for the new complex to potentially house functions required by law to be in the county seat.

Attorneys from Portage Township and Houghton both approved the wording of the petition, county Administrator Ben Larson said.

“What I’ve been told by our attorneys is that this petition is adopted by you, then it’s acted upon by the city and township and then it’s official,” he said.

Chair Tom Tikkanen said he appreciates the support from the city.

“It has been a long and winding road, but we are there,” he said.

Over the past 25 years, the county has made several attempts to replace the aging 28-bed jail, which has had frequent overcrowding issues. At Tuesday’s meeting, Sheriff Joshua Saaranen said the population has ebbed and flowed over the past several weeks from highs in the mid-30s to its current number of 26.

Saaranen met with Vice Chair Roy Britz, Commissioner Glenn Anderson, and local judges and law enforcement leaders two weeks ago to begin talking about the jail project and look at the county’s needs and future trends. Saaranen plans to take a “multi-tiered approach,” also bringing in community groups such as the Copper Country Mental Health, League of Women Voters and local hospitals.

“That way we can all come together and have a good plan and be able to come with an efficient plan for the possibility of a new jail,” he said.

Britz and Anderson said the first meeting had been productive. Once the group can build a consensus on the size that will be necessary to meet current and future needs, a cost estimate can be put together, Anderson said.

“We don’t want to overbuild, but we certainly don’t want to underbuild,” he said.

If the county does need to expand the facility in the future, the land provides room, he said.

Other comparably sized counties in the Upper Peninsula counties have larger jails, Saaranen said. Chippewa County has 176 beds. Delta County has a facility with more than 150 beds, with a daily population usually exceeding 100, he said.

In other action, the board:

• Approved the 2024 millage rate of 6.207 mills. The board held a Truth in Taxation public hearing at the start of the meeting as required for a Headlee override, which allows the county to offset the millage reduction of .3013 mills that would otherwise kick in from when property values increase faster than inflation. Approving the new millage rate nets the county a 5.1% increase in operating revenue, or about $372,828, said county Equalization Specialist Elizabeth Anderson. Had the board not approved it, revenue would have only gone up by 2.65%.

• Approved accepting a $250,000 state grant for the Houghton County Memorial Airport to add a third daily flight during the summer months of 2025.

“It’s to entice the airline to show them that we can support three flights a day during that time of year,” Hext said.

• Approved a Veteran Service Fund grant application for $70,239 from the state. The county has applied for the grant since 2019, said Joseph Battisfore, director of the county’s Veteran Service Office. The funding has allowed the office to go from two part-time employees to two full-time and one part-time employee.

• Approved a resolution for the creation of a multicounty materials management plan and an interlocal agreement incorporating Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Iron, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties and the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region. The plan covers solid waste disposal, recycling and other topics.

• Approved a collective bargaining agreement with the Houghton County Deputy Sheriffs Association, affiliated with the Police Officers Association of Michigan. The agreement covers the period between Jan. 1, 2024 and June 30, 2025.

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