Space exploration: County committee still working on building use recommendations

MARQUETTE – From the future of the Ishpeming branch of the Marquette County District Court to continued operation of the Marquette County Youth Home and overcrowding at the Marquette County Jail, recommendations due from a space needs study group on these and other issues have been delayed, perhaps until the end of the year.

“The original hope -and I think I was a little too hopeful- was that we would actually have something by June, not knowing some of the complexities that we started getting into with the recommendation to the board on where we might head with some of these items,” Marquette County Administrator Scott Erbisch told the county board this week. “In their own little ways, they evolve much more than you anticipate.”

Last year, the county commissioned a space needs study -produced by the Somerville firm of Green Bay, Wis.- which analyzed the county’s needs for building space throughout the area. Some of the places considered in the analysis included the Marquette County Jail, Ishpeming Service Center and Marquette County Courthouse complex.

The analysis provided some options, in broad terms, the board may consider going into the future. The board asked that a committee use the study to help develop recommendations for the board.

“The sooner I get things the better, but obviously we’re still shooting by the end of the year to have a recommendation to the board,” Erbisch said. “There’s a lot of different players involved. We’re looking at multiple factors.”

Erbisch outlined some of the issues being explored.

“We’re looking at the Ishpeming District Court operation and whether we continue that operation, and if we do decide that it’s not prudent to continue that, what are the impacts here locally at this (Marquette) operation,” Erbisch said. “What would need to continue versus what would discontinue by closing that operation down.”

Erbisch said quite a bit of work was completed initially on that. Meetings with judges were expected.

“That one is still progressing, there is no final recommendation at this point on that,” Erbisch said.

Operation of the Marquette County Youth Home is also being analyzed.

“After reimbursements from the state, the annual cost to the county is approximately, I’ll give you a range of $450,000 to $500,000 annually that’s not refunded to us,” Erbisch said. “So that was one of the areas given our financial challenges that we are going to be facing, basically starting next year, whether we continue that operation, whether we look at alternatives for providing a youth home or continue to operate it in a different cost-effective methodology.”

Erbisch said multiple scenarios were being explored.

“Again, there’s a handful of people working on that as well,” Erbisch said. “We continue to have numerous meetings. We’ve had good meetings and those are ongoing.”

The space needs committee is also working on the issue of jail overcrowding.

“We have some serious challenges with jail bed availability,” Erbisch said. “Basically, we’re overcrowded in the facility downtown. We also ship some of those, that qualify, inmates to the Mangum Farm. We’ve averaged between 20 and 26 people there on a daily basis.”

Erbisch said that operation is very expensive for the county, prompting several questions.

“Is that the best alternative? Can we continue to afford to keep that operation going? Are there other alternatives for looking at jail expansion that would be more cost effective for the county in the long term, but still provide adequate bed space, or more than what we are currently meeting with the use of the Mangum Farm?” Erbisch said.

The committee has consulted with the original architect and sheriff’s deputies.

“We’ve also looked at how do you pay for this and we’ve started inquiring with bond counsel,” Erbisch said. “Again it’s pulling pieces together to find, to look at what can you afford, what would make sense if you’re going to do an expansion on the jail, that also maybe gets you out a few years beyond what your current need is. Can you afford that? And then what alternatives you might have because to pay for that you might have to look at where do you pull the dollars from internally to fund something like that.”

Commissioner Deborah Pellow supported the committee taking more time.

“I think this is really important for us in the future and I’m glad that we’re taking our time on this to get it as right and as correct as we possibly can when we do decide to make the changes, if it comes to that,” Pellow said. “Hopefully, we will have something in place by the end of the year, or recommendations from this group, by the end of the year.”

During a March strategic planning session by the county board, several commissioners said the space needs study and associated recommendations were very important.

Erbisch said some of the recommendations may reach the board in piecemeal fashion.

“If we start wrapping up some of these sooner, we’ll start bringing them to the board and updating in more detail,” Erbisch said.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.