County looks to expand jail, close detention center

MARQUETTE – The Marquette County Board voted unanimously Tuesday to hire an architect to design a build-out of the county jail to accommodate more inmates, with an eye toward closing the county’s Mangum Farms detention center by 2015.

The idea was among several options presented in a county Space Needs Ad Hoc Committee Report completed this month after nearly a year in development.

“I think this is one (issue) that really needs our top priority concern based on the numbers and based on the need,” said board Vice Chairwoman Deborah Pellow, who made the motion to propose the board’s action.

The annual cost to operate the detention center – which opened in 2009 as a stop-gap measure to ease jail overcrowding – is more than $700,000. The county jail is increasingly overcrowded to beyond its 80-inmate capacity. On average, 24 minimum-security jail inmates are housed daily at the detention center. Additional federal inmates at the center have not increased as anticipated, resulting in less revenue to offset costs.

Numerous improvements are expected to be needed at the center – which the county leases from the state – over the next few years, including a roof, exterior painting and possible boiler and hot water tank replacement. If a sewage lagoon fails, the county would have to fund a new one, Pellow said.

The architect is expected to offer several potential jail expansion configurations.

County staff will develop a financial plan for the project, looking at possible funding available, including up to $450,000 anticipated annually in savings from closing the detention center, other cost savings and short-term revenue.

If possible, bids would be let for the jail expansion project by late next year with construction and move-in anticipated in 2015, in concert with closing the detention center.

Preliminary estimates put the cost of a 12-bed expansion at $2 million and $7.6 million for a 72-bed expansion. Those figures do not include improvements needed for the existing jail, including door modifications, control room controls and newer cameras, estimated to cost up to $1 million.

Building a new 150-bed jail, which could include land purchase, was estimated at $19 million and would require a millage or a significant reduction in services, the study said.

No board members Tuesday said a new jail was feasible.

“That would be my first wish is to start over,” Commissioner Steven Pence said. “But I don’t think, in a practical world, and with the feelings of the more experienced members of this board, that that simply would not pass, a millage wouldn’t pass.”

Pence said he recently discussed the issue with sheriff’s department employees.

“They don’t like at all, as noted in this report, attempts to patch up and build on to a facility that has been inadequate for a number of years,” Pence said.

Commissioner Paul Arsenault said: “I don’t think it’s fair to the judges or it’s fair to the sheriff’s department or the jail people to just close something without a plan, and it needs to be an aggressive plan, it needs to move fast.”

Arsenault said Pellow’s motion provides that plan.

Commissioner Bruce Heikkila said he never did like the detention center.

“I think the place is a money pit. The building is obsolete,” Heikkila said. “The lagoon is a problem. We can keep putting money into the building and we’re still going to have an old obsolete building.”

Heikkila said the annual cost for the center’s inmates equates to roughly $30,000 apiece.

Board Chairman Gerald Corkin said: “I think the idea (jail build-out) sounds good, but I guess what I would like to see is a financial plan before I can say, ‘Go’ on anything. I’ll support it now, but I have to see a financial plan that we can do it responsibly.”

Seppanen said he wants enough expansion to meet current and future needs, and input from law enforcement officials and judges on how many more beds are needed is important.

“We’re going to have to control the purse,” Seppanen said. “But they need to be part of that discussion.”

Corkin said he wants alternatives to jailing inmates incorporated.

“What I would like to see is a more progressive way of dealing with non-violent kinds of things rather than locking them up all the time,” Corkin said.

County Administrator Scott Erbisch characterized the proposed time frame for expansion as “aggressive.”

“The caution is the timeline,” Erbisch said. “I think we will try to work within that, but there’s a number of factors we’re going to have to look at.”

Erbisch will keep the board apprised of progress.

Based on the study’s findings, the board also approved a measure Tuesday to reduce staff and operations at the Marquette County Youth Home to save $150,000 each year. Some of this process had already begun and will be fully implemented by the second quarter of next year. The facility will remain open.

Two additional motions were discussed, but both failed, resulting in no new exploration of potential consolidation of services in Marquette of the Ishpeming Service Center, which includes a branch of the district court, county treasurer and clerk duties and aging services staff.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is jpepin@miningjournal.net.