BROOKINGS – A town hall presenting the possible options for a Brookings County Detention expansion either at its current location or to build elsewhere was held Monday night, with no action taken on the county’s part.
The soonest the county could make a decision on what plan to move forward with will be the Sept. 26 county commission meeting.
Monday’s gathering was a time to inform the audience about where the county and architect firm BKV Group were in the process following the denial of a zero-foot variance request by the Board of Adjustment on June 1, going over once again a study introduced earlier this month. Cost to expand onsite had been estimated at $12.6 million, with an estimated price tag of $14.3 million to build off site.
What was different about the Monday night meeting was the open question-and-answer forum at the end of the presentation, allowing members of the audience to speak their minds about the project and its future.
Audience members spoke to a variety of issues and concerns they held about the project, with some there amenable to building on-site and some firmly opposed.
The numbers involved were a point of contention for some, with some expressing frustration that numbers provided weren’t more detailed.
In a few cases, numbers were erroneous, which added to on-site expansion skeptics’ irritation.
As was pointed out by someone in the audience, in the originally approved plan, soft costs were estimated at about $1.8 million. In both the revised on-site and the off-site estimated budget outlines, soft costs were projected to run $2.3 million, but Schwartzman did not know off hand why there was such an increase.
Soft costs are any expense in a construction project not tied to the actual construction costs. This means everything from the furniture that will be put in to the architect and engineering fees are all considered soft costs.
Schwartzman said he’d look into those numbers to see what is the cause for the increase.
Also caught by a sharp-eyed member of the audience: If officials decide to go off-site, they assumed five acres in their cost estimates, Schwartzman had said. But in their budget outline, it could be seen that assuming $25,000-per acre, they had assumed a lot size of 10 acres for building off-site instead.
The compared costs to operate the jail if it was built elsewhere or expanded on its current site were also called into question.
Doug Carruthers asked if the projected $15 million over 20 years was being compared to costs to operate the current jail or the expanded on-site option.
Schwartzman confirmed that those costs were compared to the jail as it is.
Failing to compare an estimated expanded jail operational costs with the off-site operational costs is “counterproductive to the community being able to engage in this conversation and having the facts and feeling like we’re being represented properly,” Carruthers said. “That’s my problem with the numbers and strictly the point that I’m trying to make. I think as voters, we should be very critical of any number that’s asking us to agree to spend X number of dollars over N number of years.”
One of the other recurring topics was the lifespan of an expanded jail at its current site, or the number of years that jail could be used before needing another expansion.
Schwartzman said the on-site expanded facility would likely provide adequately for the county’s needs for the next 25 years, depending on future crime and population trends in the county.
One woman in the audience said she was concerned about having to revisit this issue again in 25 years.
Carruthers echoed the sentiment.
“In 50 years, we will have revisited this twice. And we’re going to have to expand this facility either on site or off site no matter what over that period of time. So as an exercise of using tax payers’ dollars, to continue to invest in land that you know will eventually run out of capacity while at the same time degrading the historic building that exists on that site is counterproductive to the community as a whole,” he said.
Another asked for clarification on how the operational lifespan of this is determined. “Is it the number of inmates? Is it something else?”
Schwartzman began by noting that there are more felonies leading to incarceration than misdemeanors these days, “so there’s need for more hard cells, there’s need for more correctional space, and there’s need to address the correctional space.”
So in addition to being tied to the number of beds, additional support space such as booking is considered when coming up with a lifespan.
However, Commissioner Lee Ann Pierce took a much more optimistic view, believing that it would last the county for 50 years, citing the county’s experience with the current detention center.
“Our 1904 jail lasted until 1975. Then we built the jail we have right now, and it’s lasted from 1975 until today. It’s been there for a long time,” Pierce said. “We looked at the population estimates for the increase in our county over the next 25, 30 years. We’re not going to outgrow that jail.”
And then there was the first question of the night: If the county does choose to go ahead with building on-site, what is the likelihood of the Board of Adjustment approving the revised setback variance request?
This is an important factor for the county to consider as it weighs its option.
It’s also one with no clear answer, Schwartzman said. It’s not guaranteed that even with a new request, which allows for buffers with the sidewalk and even adds green space, it will be approved.
“It’s like reading a crystal ball,” he said of Board of Adjustment’s decision in such a scenario.
Contact Eric Sandbulte at [email protected]