WILLMAR -- An expansion at the Kandiyohi County jail could mean up to 300 additional state prisoners being housed here. It could also mean additional jobs for jailers and chemical dependency counselors who would treat the inmates.
Such an expansion could be possible as a result of legislation approved by the House and Senate. The legislation is expected to be signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
It would be "a lot of good jobs" with good pay and benefits, said Wayne Thompson, Kandiyohi County administrator.
If the jail was a private business "Steve Renquist would be chasing us down the street to get us to locate in Kandiyohi County," said Thompson with a laugh.
Renquist is the director of the Kandiyohi County and the City of Willmar Economic Development Authority.
For the past three years, Kandiyohi County has had a contract to house 45 state prisoners at $55 a day in the jail.
That brings in at least $90,000 a month to the county in revenue.
Increasing the state prison population in Willmar to 300 would "be a challenge," said Sheriff Dan Hartog, but it would be a financial benefit to the county.
The need for additional jail space in the state prison system is due, in part, to an increased number of inmates using and abusing chemicals, including alcohol and methamphetamines.
It's estimated that 85 percent of the prison population in the state system either abuse chemicals or are chemically dependent, said Dennis Benson, deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
He said the state has a shortage of 2,000 jail beds for such prisoners. "It's a glaring need in the system," he said.
For years the Department of Corrections has been looking at "creative alternative" to that shortage.
Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said he and Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, came up with that solution when they injected wording into two bills that would allow the state to have contracts of up to five years with counties for housing up to 300 state prisoners in new facilities that also provided treatment for chemical dependency.
"It would focus on that need for treatment for the prisoners,"said Juhnke. "Let's treat these folks when they have them."
With chemical dependency counselors literally across the street from the Kandiyohi County jail on the Willmar Regional Treatment Center campus, the legislation would seem a perfect fit.
The state "has a desperate need" for more jail beds, said Johnson. He said it costs less per day to house prisoners in county jails than in state prisons. It also provides "a nice cash flow" to participating counties.
Johnson said the state approved spending $121 million to build more state prison beds. State bonding money would not be used to fund expansion of county jails, he said.
The Kandiyohi County jail was built with expansion in mind. Thompson said building plans were prepared about two years ago for a 150-bed expansion. Construction could easily begin in a matter of months, he said.
Building space for 300 beds would be more difficult financially and logistically, said Thompson. He and the county's financial advisor were busy "crunching the numbers" on the different scenarios.
But before anyone starts building anything, there will need to be considerable communication between the county, local lawmakers and the Department of Corrections to discuss potential changes the new legislation could bring about.
Having a five-year contract could make a big difference in whether Kandiyohi County decides to be a partner with the state on this new venture.
Currently, the Department of Corrections is only able to extend two-year contracts. The county has been reluctant to invest the money for a jail expansion without a guarantee that revenue would pay off the construction bond and interest payments.