County board decisions don't come much tougher than the March 9 vote that five Crow Wing County commissioners faced on capital improvement and jail bonds for an expansive county building project.
The board voted 4-1 to issue bonds to pay for $49 million in construction costs to meet the county's needs for the next 20 to 25 years. An additional $2 million that the county expects will be saved in maintenance for buildings that will be demolished brings the total to $51 million.
The ambitious plan would give the county a new jail, new judicial center, new community services building and new heating plant. Included in the price tag would be the buildings, office furniture and demolition costs.
Fifty-one million dollars is an awful lot of money by anyone's calculations. This building project won't come without some personal pain for taxpayers, even when it's spread out over 20 years.
Once the sticker shock wears off, however county residents should consider what happens if they do nothing. Construction costs, the board was informed by consultants last June, are expected to go up between 3.5 and 4.5 percent a year. Interest rates for this bonding project, which are probably the lowest they've been in some 30 years, are also bound to go up.
Crow Wing County's population is expected to double in the next 20 years. That makes it certain that demand for judicial system, law enforcement and other county services will drastically increase also. It's not a question of if the county will have to construct new buildings, but when, how and where.
Commissioner Gary Walters is right when he said the county must prepare for the oncoming wave of new residents "or the future is going to bury us."
Had the county board decided to put the question to a referendum vote and that vote was successful the cost to taxpayers would be 60 percent higher because seasonal residents would not share in the project cost. By issuing bonds without a referendum, the county board deservedly spread the burden across the county's entire tax base. Seasonal residents use their share of county government resources and should be included when the construction costs are divvied up.
The county board made the right call on this tough decision. If it had procrastinated and put the decision off for another 10 years the costs to the taxpayers would have only gone up.
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