A new Crow Wing County government campus will be part of downtown Brainerd.
Tuesday commissioners made decisions on what they wanted conceptually and how they were going to pay for it. After looking at costs that ranged from $18 million to $57 million for a phased-in approach or the entire plan now, commissioners reached a decision.
"It's really time to fry the chicken," Chairman Terry Sluss said as the board approached a vote.
In the end, commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of issuing bonds to pay for $49 million in project construction costs to meet county needs for the next 20 to 25 years. The plan uses $2 million the county expects to save in maintenance for buildings that will be demolished for a $51 million total.
Building construction could begin with site preparation as early as this fall. Commissioners noted the spending and construction, with a focus on hiring area crews, will be a boon to downtown Brainerd. And they said the real test will be what people think in 10 years regarding the decision to build now.
Before the vote, commissioners recapped how they came to this point. A tour of county facilities found a lot of things were done on a "short-term, get-by basis," Commissioner Ed Larsen said. Record storage shortage was just one area. Building maintenance was another.
"If we don't do anything at all, we are going to spend millions of dollars," Larsen said. He equated the $10 million in anticipated maintenance work to overhauling a car with 300,000 miles on it.
"This is a long-range plan and I can buy into this," he said.
Sluss said he believes residents want to hear the long-term needs for the future and be upfront about overall costs, instead of trying to go at the project in pieces. Auditor Roy Luukkonen noted the Crow Wing County has one of the lowest tax rates in the state when compared with other counties.
"This is the best way for this board to plan for the future," Sluss said. "We've done an honest job."
What does it mean for taxpayers?
A resident with a $100,000 market value home would pay $63 a year for 20 years with the Crow Wing County vote to issue capital improvement and jail bonds for the project.
The same person would pay $107 a year if the project went to a referendum. The numbers are expected to change slightly and won't be firm until the bond sale and also are dependent upon tax changes with the Legislature. A growing tax base in the county also could mean the numbers could decrease.
Source: Crow Wing County auditor's office.
Commissioners and staff recounted other options considered as alternatives to construction such as split shifts, telecommuting and night court to help alleviate existing space issues.
"You can't do more with less," Commissioner Gary Walters said, adding either the county prepares for what is coming "or the future is going to bury us."
Commissioner Dewey Tautges earlier stated he would not support the project without a voters' referendum, but that changed as he saw taxpayers would pay 60 percent more with that option versus the county issuing bonds. Larsen was in favor of the bond, which uses tax capacity, because he said the burden needed to be spread across the tax base. He noted the number of seasonal people who use the county's services from law enforcement and the courts to highways. With the referendum option, seasonal residents would not be taxed.
"That means this decision has to be made at this board level," Larsen said. "I'm going to support moving forward."
Commissioner John Ferrari said: "At our public hearings, I didn't hear anything negative at all."
Tautges said a tour of county buildings also opened his eyes. But Tautges, who voted against the bond Tuesday, said while the project was a good concept, he could not vote for the price tag the board was suggesting. Tautges said he represents blue-collar workers and farmers in his district and they will take a hit financially.
"If money was no object, I'd support this 100 percent," Tautges said.
Sluss said getting to the decision was a difficult process and he thanked those who worked on the committee. "It's not an easy thing to do the right thing," he said. "I am absolutely convinced it's the right thing to do."
Ferrari noted people were against the county spending to purchase Complex West and land across the street from the courthouse a number of years ago. The county purchased Complex West in 1993 for $27,500 annually during a 10-year period. Without that purchase, Larsen said county government would be forced to leave downtown Brainerd.
County Attorney Don Ryan said he was extremely supportive of the project. Sheriff Eric Klang also expressed support, saying the project was long overdue.
Commissioners authorized Wold Architects and Engineers of St. Paul, which worked with the county to develop the master plan, to do the building designs -- with the exception of the highway department's building, using as many local firms as possible. Ryan suggested the county may want to consider another provider for the remodeling efforts, noting Architecture One has done much of the work on the buildings in the past 10 years. Wold also was authorized to design the parking lots and landscaping. The county will request proposals for the highway department building.
Walters said it is nice to have one group following the whole plan through, although he said that was not his thought in the beginning.
"This is by no means the end of anything," Walters said after the votes. "This is the beginning of everything."
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