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Commissioners vote unanimously to build new Beltrami County Jail

After months of studies and public input, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners made the decision on Tuesday, Nov. 15, to build a new jail to replace the current facility that no longer meets state standards.

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Beltrami County Commissioners discuss the future of the Beltrami County Jail during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — The construction of a new jail is on the horizon for Beltrami County, after the county board officially decided to build a new facility to replace the current aging building.

The decision, made during the commissioners' meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15, came after a months-long feasibility study and a period of public input and was one of seven total options presented to the board for consideration.

The board members present, which was everyone except District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick, voted in favor of building a new jail unanimously, after concluding that it would be the most responsible and financially viable option for the county.

“I think it’s very important that we all agree, and we had a unanimous vote on the project moving forward,” said District 1 Commissioner Craig Gaasvig, who proposed the motion.

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District 1 Commissioner Craig Gaasvig makes a motion to build a new jail during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Lucachick, despite not being unable to attend, provided a statement to the board, read by County Administrator Tom Barry, expressing his support for the construction of a new jail.

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“The jail project is very important for our community. It is my strong belief that the need for a new facility is the right path to take,” Lucachick’s statement read. “Doing nothing is not an option, in my opinion.”

The seven proposed options included:

  • Do nothing, an option that takes no action and operates the jail with no renovation, remodeling or restructuring.
  • Reduce the jail to a 36-hour holding facility, an option that reduces the jail from a full-service jail facility to one that would transport inmates who don’t post bail to a different county after being held for 36 hours.
  • Renovate the current detention center, an option that would renovate the existing structure, but would not expand it.
  • Expand the current detention center, an option that would expand the existing structure.
  • Build a new detention center, an option that would construct an entirely new jail.
  • Build a regional detention center, an option that would build a facility that would serve several counties, including Beltrami.
  • Close the detention center, an option that would shut down the jail and solely operate a booking center.

All of this comes after an inspection by the Department of Corrections found that the current jail, which was built in 1989, was no longer able to meet state standards. The county was given the option to address these issues or close the facility.
In response, the board began a Jail Needs and Feasibility Study, which ultimately presented seven options for the jail’s future. Alongside building a new facility, other options included remodeling the existing jail and reducing it to a 36-hour holding facility.

The option to build a new facility has a total estimated cost of just under $500 million, of which $374.7 million will come from levy costs over the next 30 years.

The remaining amount is planned to come from a local option sales tax that should earn an estimated $125 million, an amount that otherwise would have to be included in the levy increases.

Because this tax would offset a potential levy increase, the decision of building a new jail was the cheapest, in terms of levies, of the seven options that were presented to the board.

“Thank you to everybody who was involved in this process,” said District 4 Commissioner Tim Sumner. “It’s been a pretty tedious task. I know it wasn’t really an easy decision.”

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District 4 Commissioner Tim Sumner gives his opinion on the future of the Beltrami County Jail during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

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Moving forward

Following the official decision by the county board, several other steps will need to be taken before construction can begin. These include getting permission for a local option sales tax and deciding where the jail will be located.

Several potential sites have been identified, and although no formal decision was made during Tuesday’s meeting, some commissioners did express their support for or opposition to particular locations.

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Beltrami County Sheriff Ernie Beitel, left, and incoming sheriff Jason Riggs listen as commissioners discuss the future of the Beltrami County Jail during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Lucachick, in his statement, supported the potential of building a new facility on the block north of the current county jail, a step that would require the county to invoke eminent domain.

“I also believe that the block directly north of the current facility is the right place, regrettably invoking eminent domain on those few properties,” Lucachick’s statement read.

District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson opposed this site, stating that tearing down single-family, owner-occupied homes would worsen the already significant housing shortage in Bemidji.

“We know we have an acute housing shortage,” Olson shared. “Do we owe anything to our community as we take away their homes, drive up home prices and drive up scarcity?”

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District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson, left, gives his opinion on the future of the Beltrami County Jail during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Olson went on to challenge the other commissioners to keep this impact in mind, adding that his term will end in December before the final decision is made.

“I’m not going to be here when these decisions get made, so I challenge you to please think about the impact we will have on housing in Bemidji,” Olson said. “We have to move forward, but we do have to look at the fallout.”

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Other commissioners stressed that at this point in time, there is no favored site for the new jail and that the board’s decision will take all of this into account.

“I wouldn’t want the local homeowners to think this is a done deal. That decision has not been made,” said District 3 Commissioner Richard Anderson. “There are other options that need to be vetted out.”

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District 3 Commissioner Richard Anderson gives his opinion on the future of the Beltrami County Jail during a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Barry went on to add that of the several sites under consideration by the county, only one would involve eminent domain.

“Of the initial seven or so sites that have been identified, only one would impact housing,” Barry explained. “We are a long way from decision-making.”

An update on the project schedule will be provided to the county board during their Dec. 13 meeting.

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Beltrami County Administrator Tom Barry speaks during a Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in the County Board Room.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Related Topics: BELTRAMI COUNTY JAILBELTRAMI COUNTY COMMISSIONERSGOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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