Bemidji City Council hears presentation on jail project
Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel gave a presentation to the Bemidji City Council on the county’s ongoing jail project and encouraged members of the public to get engaged and provide their input. A public hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22, at the County Administration Building.
BEMIDJI — During its session on Monday, the Bemidji City Council heard a presentation on an issue that has been heavily discussed in the community for months — the future of the Beltrami County Jail.
Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel and County Administrator Tom Barry gave a presentation to the council on the results of a recent Jail Needs Assessment and Feasibility Study, which examined seven potential options for the jail to address the challenges it faces with capacity and deteriorating conditions.
Motivated by a recent inspection done by the Minnesota Department of Corrections that found a number of issues with the facility, the jail project is the alternative the county took when faced with the possibility of being forced to shut the jail down.
“In (the DOC’s) words ‘enough is enough,’” Beitel said. “Otherwise we’re going to be looking at closing the jail as a possibility if they choose to sunset us.”
The presentation given to the council included several different paths forward that the county could choose from, including shutting down the jail or building a new regional facility in conjunction with other counties.
Each of these has its associated costs, some higher than others, that could result in an increase to the county’s annual tax levy.
When looking at the estimated 30-year costs, the amount the tax levy would increase in each plan ranged from $374.7 million for building a new facility, to $535.6 million to renovate the existing jail.
With Beltrami County already having notably high property taxes, Beitel expressed some concern about having to increase that burden.
“Adding a large property tax bill to an already strained property tax system could be difficult for people to swallow.”
Because of the impact that decision regarding the jail’s future will have on county residents, Beitel used the presentation to encourage members of the public to get involved.
“The whole idea behind this thing is to inform the public,” Beitel said. “The county board needs direction. We’ve extended the amount of time for people to leave public comment.”
Beitel explained that there are multiple ways for community members to provide their input, including a public hearing scheduled for 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 22, at the County Administration Building.
There is also an online survey that users can reach on the county’s website. All of these options will provide vital public input for the county board on how best to proceed regarding a difficult decision.
“We’re going to be affecting people’s lives, one way or the other,” Beitel said. “The board is going to have a tough decision, and I just encourage people to be a part of that.”
As for the council’s response to the presentation, alongside asking questions to Beitel and Barry about the details of the project, the council members all expressed gratitude for how the concerns about the jail have been approached.
“I really appreciate the spirit of transparency that has existed throughout this process,” said Mayor Jorge Prince.
A final decision on the future of the jail and which option might be taken is not expected until November.
During its meeting, the council also extended the Bemidji Curling Club's use of half of the Neilson Reise Arena. The club had also previously approached the council with a request for around $67,000 in capital funding for the building’s exterior needs, but this was delayed for further discussion.
Some members of the council believed that as the owners of the building it’s the city’s responsibility to maintain the facility and were supportive of approving the request.
“This is our building and we’re leasing it,” said Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson. “It’s really not any different than a landlord.”
Other council members argued that the uncertain future of the Neilson Reise Arena, the number of other costly projects the city is anticipating and Bemidji’s general policy of not funding nonprofits, meant that the request should not be approved.
“I think this puts the city in a difficult position financially,” said At-large Councilor Daniel Jourdain. “How long can we keep going down this broken road? There are all these things occurring in the city, it’s difficult for me to support this type of approval.”
A final decision on the funding request was not reached and will likely come before the council again.