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Swift County hears space, building needs report

BENSON -- A nine-month-long examination of Swift County's existing government buildings and the current and future needs of the county has resulted in a long list of potential projects that could cost as much as $24 million in the next couple dec...

Swift County District Court
The Swift County District Courthouse in Benson needs repairs. Joel Dunning, an architect with Wold Architects and Engineers of St. Paul, told county commissioners Tuesday that there isn’t enough space in the historic structure to meet needs. (FILE | TRIBUNE)

BENSON - A nine-month-long examination of Swift County’s existing government buildings and the current and future needs of the county has resulted in a long list of potential projects that could cost as much as $24 million in the next couple decades.
Proposed projects touch every department and building, including the courthouse, human services, public health, the jail, highway department county attorney, environmental services and historical society.
Not all of the projects outlined in a report Tuesday to the Swift County Board of Commissioners will be done - or if they are, they will be spread out over a 10- to 20-year period - but the commissioners agreed to start putting together a plan for how to time renovations, infrastructure improvements and shuffling of offices and employees in order the best utilize space and provide service to residents. The county’s 1897 courthouse was the starting point of the space study.
There isn’t enough space in the historic structure to meet needs, said Joel Dunning, an architect with Wold Architects and Engineers of St. Paul.
And because the “footprint is fixed,” he proposed that some programs and employees be moved out of the courthouse to other county buildings.
Some of the high-priority projects at the courthouse, including the heating and ventilation system and remodeling the courtroom space to improve security for judges, juries and the public, are on the short list that could be completed within the next two years.
Dunning presented two options for remodeling the courtroom area. The first option includes installing an elevator to the third floor and changing the traffic flow to keep juries, judges and inmates coming from the jail out of the public corridors. The proposal also includes creating one large courtroom to accommodate a 14-person jury and a small courtroom without a jury box.
A second option would include minor courtroom renovations and would separate some courtroom staff from the public but would not resolve all of the security concerns.
County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver said there have been multiple “band-aid fixes” to the courtroom floor to address security. He said the judges have been “very patient” and predicted they would prefer the first option.
Projects that consultants from Wold recommended completing in the next two years - including renovations at the courthouse, public health and human services - totaled nearly $6 million.
They also presented a two- to five-year to-do list of $4.5 million in projects, including the jail, highway department and county attorney’s office.
They presented long-term and short-term options for addressing issues with the law enforcement center and jail.
The short-term plan includes creating some new office space and a separate bathroom for inmates to provide urine samples. Currently, that’s done in the public bathroom.
The county’s existing jail is too small and the county currently sends prisoners to other county jails for a fee.
For the long term, it was proposed the county consider either working with another county to build a stand-alone, 50-bed jail that would meet the needs of both counties or keep the current facility, downgrade it to a 72-hour hold facility and then rent jail space for all prisoners.
Housing prisoners in its own jail costs the county about $185 a day per prisoner. Pogge-Weaver said it costs $50 a day to lease jail space, but with added costs to transport prisoners and pay for health care, the actual fee is about $100 a day.
Pogge-Weaver said financially it makes sense to send prisoners out of the county, but he said politically it may not be viewed favorably. He said the community wants to have its own jail.
Commissioner Gary Hendrickx said the county will eventually “need to have that conversation” about the future of the jail.
The commissioners directed Pogge-Weaver to look at all the projects on the zero- to five-year list and provide a plan in the next couple months on how to piece together a master plan.
Pogge-Weaver said he expects the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in the courthouse will be the first project to be tackled.
The third phase of the facilities plan, which could stretch out 10 to 20 years, ranges from $4.6 million to $13.2 million in cost. Dunning said those rough cost estimates are based on today’s dollars and do not account for inflation.
The commissioners on Tuesday also heard a report from Kurt Waldbillig, CEO of the Swift County-Benson Hospital, about a $12.5 million senior living facility and $5.8 million hospital renovation project that is being pursued.

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