Crow Wing County commissioners were hesitant to take up a recommendation to construct a new Law Enforcement Center in Brainerd.
Tuesday, they were still looking for more options.
Sheriff’s Lt. Dave Fischer presented a recommendation to build a new Law Enforcement Center (LEC) to replace the building on Laurel Street in Brainerd by the historic courthouse.
Fischer said he was pushing for the new building because he thought it was money well spent, which he did not think would be the case in a remodeling project. The board was told the remodeling of the current LEC and building a new one would cost nearly the same. Wold Architects Engineers estimated constructing a new LEC would cost $15.3 million while adding on and remodeling the existing building could cost $13.2 million, perhaps as much as $15 million depending on work on the exterior.
“You are not giving us options, you are giving us ‘build a new building,’” said Commissioner Paul Thiede.
A master plan, developed in 2004, created the current Crow Wing County campus, but stopped short of spending for a new LEC. The plan was to build a new LEC across the street from its current location on Laurel Street. The new LEC was to go up in the parking area by the new jail. The current LEC, the gray stucco building cut into the hillside, was built in 1979. The plan was to demolish the existing LEC and replace it with parking.
Crow Wing County’s $56.5 million campus building project on Laurel Street included a Judicial Center, a new jail with help from Cass County and a new Community Services Building — and renovation of the Land Services Building and historic courthouse.
Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said the current board’s predecessors were voted out of office because of the last capital building project.
“If you feel we are very squeamish, I would think that would be fairly accurate,” Nystrom said.
Chairman Doug Houge asked if there was a potential to reduce the cost by approaching the project in phases during several years or building a standalone addition to respond to the sheriff’s department’s space needs with vehicles and evidence first.
Mike Carlson, deputy auditor-treasurer in finance, said the county would lose some finance options in a phased approach but it would work. Carlson said the county has about $8 million in a fund balance for capital projects and the general fund. He noted there are other potential demands for that money, such as highway infrastructure but outside of that the LEC has been identified as the county’s main project.
Nystrom said people may wonder why that fund balance isn’t used to reduce the tax levy.
Carlson said the fund amounted to the county’s savings, adding people wouldn’t pay their utility bill with their savings or at least at some point that becomes unsustainable. Having an adequate fund balance is away to avoid spikes and valleys in the levy needs, Carlson said.
Commissioner Paul Thiede said in the recent economic woes, people were using savings to pay those bills and still hundreds weren’t able to avoid foreclosure.
It’s a tough sell to taxpayers, Commissioner Phil Trusty said. “One, I think we could have done a better job of caring for what we had over there,” Trusty said of the LEC, adding he understood the need for building code updates but questioned the lack of options.
Fischer pointed to the 2004 master plan and said the space needs study looked at an evidence room and processing needs, not lavish areas.
Houge said many have seen their plans change since 2004. If today’s economy were the same as the one eight years ago, Houge said building the LEC would be a slam dunk. “But it’s not,” Houge said. “We know there is a need for something whether it’s the dreamed-about master plan or something else. The problem with the new building I have is that it’s all or nothing.”
“I’m troubled by the fact the options laid before us are too limited,” Thiede said.
Thiede said there are difficulties in space and they’ve been getting along but they can’t do that forever, but the question is whether this is the time to spend this money.
Houge said the board consensus seemed to be in favor of building in phases, which could be easier to sell to the public. Fischer said that was something they could bring back to the board.
Everyone spoke during the session except Commissioner Rosemary Franzen. Nystrom asked what Franzen was thinking.
“I think there are a lot of options that weren’t given to us and I think you better come back with them,” Franzen said.