Letters to the Editor — March 17 Edition
To the Editor:
Facing similar needs to address failing jail facilities, both Winona and Trempealeau counties hired the same jail-planning consultant in the first month of 2018.
Three years later, both counties are planning and budgeting 80-bed jail / law enforcement centers immediately adjacent to existing county courthouses. Winona County (population 50,484) is prepared to spend $25 million. Trempealeau County (population 29,499) has a $43.5 million bond on this month’s agenda. The price tag difference for two similar projects exceeds that of Arcadia’s recent Wanek Center.
Despite getting off to the same start, that is quite the divergence. On a per-capita basis; Winona’s cost comes to $495 per citizen; Trempealeau County is preparing to pay $1,467 per person for a project defined as “conservatively designed” at www.trempealeaucountyjusticecenter.com/the-solution. Winona’s design prioritizes a stand-alone building that avoids work on the envelope of existing structures. Trempealeau County’s design is centered on being a large addition to an aging courthouse that will need to be brought up to code for more unforeseen costs.
I recall a 2015 conversation with then-Trempealeau County Board Chair that it was vital to avoid an addition of any kind. As Trempealeau began moving forward with the first step of a jail needs study, other counties were at various stages of their own jail project: Pierce County, WI (population 43,555) completed an 80-bed facility in 2017 for less than $20 million. Monroe County, WI (population 46,051) built a 180-bed jail and four courtrooms in 2017 for $40 million. Grant County, WI (population 51,554) built a 103-bed justice center in 2019 for under $25 million.
Of course, every county is different with its own needs, limitations, and capacities. One difference in capacity might be leadership — in discovering what questions need to be asked and the approach to budgeting. Having served on the Trempealeau County Board while also receiving news from Winona County, the comparison and contrasts have been impossible to ignore and consistently telling.
A few years ago, Winona County Board members sought input from neighboring Minnesota counties for advice gained from their own jail projects and the Winona Board thoroughly debates the matter to this day. Nearly three years ago, Trempealeau’s new board chair asked Wisconsin Counties’ Association legal experts for advice on how to negotiate with our county seat for real estate without the press knowing and later a fellow board member later referred to our planning process as ‘hijacked’. Winona County just recently authorized an initial $10 million bond towards its’ likely $25 million cost. In 2019, Trempealeau County utilized as much capital spending as possible to preemptively raise the levy to later borrow for a project that had yet to be approved — let alone designed.
While Winona County prioritizes not building more than necessary, Trempealeau County pitches the good timing of ‘low interest rates’. Looking at the proposed design for Trempealeau, I’m reminded of both the ‘borrow as much possible’ attitude of the 08-09 recession as well as of a couple filling out a wedding registry.