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Swift County Board splits on building proposal

BENSON -- The Swift County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday voted 3-2 to move ahead with a proposal that could lead to the construction of a two-story addition and replacement of the current law enforcement center on the courthouse grounds in Be...

Tom Cherveny / Tribune Mark Hughes of Danvers was among citizens who voiced opposition Tuesday to a proposed building project in Swift County. An estimated 50 citizens attended the meeting of the Board of Commissioners at which the commissioners voted 3-2 to have an architect develop schematic plans for an addition on the courthouse grounds in Benson.
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Mark Hughes of Danvers was among citizens who voiced opposition Tuesday to a proposed building project in Swift County. An estimated 50 citizens attended the meeting of the Board of Commissioners at which the commissioners voted 3-2 to have an architect develop schematic plans for an addition on the courthouse grounds in Benson.

BENSON - The Swift County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday voted 3-2 to move ahead with a proposal that could lead to the construction of a two-story addition and replacement of the current law enforcement center on the courthouse grounds in Benson.

The commissioners instructed Wold Architects to complete a schematic design for the proposal at a cost of $162,000. Commissioners supporting the project emphasized that the action Tuesday does not commit the county to the project to build a new jail, law enforcement center, and human services facility and offices for corrections and the county attorney. A preliminary estimate for the project, which would expand facility space from roughly 17,000 square feet to 38,000 square feet, is $17.8 million.

The vote came in front of an estimated 50 citizens, most of whom applauded those who voiced opposition to going forward. Benson resident and business owner Robert Zielsdorf presented an online petition with over 480 signatures asking the commissioners to postpone a decision.

A number of people voiced concerns about the tax impact, especially on agricultural lands. "This is enough," said one.

Jim Hilleren, the first to address the commissioners, urged them to create a committee with members of the public to review the county's needs. He cited the Benson School District's recent successful bond issue that followed the work of a similar process with citizen input.

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Commissioners Gary Hendrickx, Ed Rudningen and Pete Peterson favored moving ahead, while Chairman Edward Pederson and Commissioner Joe Fox voted no. At meeting's end, Pederson resigned his position as chairman, saying he could not represent the board when he was opposed to the project.

The commissioners also took a separate vote, and agreed without dissent, to support a recommendation by the county's building committee to state their intent to continue having a jail and dispatch center operations in the county.

About 60 percent of the proposed project's costs are related to building a new and larger jail, and much of the discussions centered on that issue. The county is spending $16,500 a month to house prisoners out-of-county, and sheriff's officers are spending more time transporting prisoners, according to information presented previously by Sheriff John Holtz.

While he said he understands the concerns about taxes, and what he called a "sick" agricultural economy, Commissioner Pete Peterson told the citizens at the meeting that he had not heard anyone point to the public safety issues at stake. He said the county needed to meet those needs.

Peterson said he understands it is a contentious issue, adding that taking his stand in light of the opposition was like putting his fingers on an anvil and waiting for the hammer blow.

Commissioner Rudningen said he agrees with the citizens that taxes are a concern, but not acting to address the public safety needs means Swift County is allowing other counties to make decisions for it.

Commissioner Hendrickx offered the motion to have the schematic plans developed. He pointed out that this proposal is basically option "G" in a long line of plans analyzed by a county building committee over roughly the last three years. The schematic plans are needed to make decisions on how to move forward, he said.

Board Chairman Edward Pederson had encouraged citizens to attend Tuesday's meeting.

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"The whole county is begging for us to spend a little more time on it before moving ahead,'' Pederson said. "I do not think this is what the public is asking us to do."

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