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Douglas County board approves courthouse remodeling

The Douglas County Courthouse remodeling project received a green light at Tuesday's county board meeting.

Despite opposition from the board's chair, Paul Anderson, Phase 1 of the remodeling project is set to begin yet this year.

The cost of the project is approximately $2 million.

Phase 1 includes a two-story addition to the south side of the courts wing that would include a secure area for inmate transfers to and from court, a vehicle sally port, courts holding rooms, conference room/jury assembly and more. Phase 1 would not include a new dispatch area, however.

Anderson, who is against the project, stated that he could not see changes to the dispatch area anywhere in the near future.

Before the vote, Anderson told the other commissioners, "This is not the time to increase debt. I will not vote for it. I won't."

And he didn't. After a lengthy, and somewhat heated discussion, the project was approved, 4-1.

Bruce Schwartzman from Klein McCarthy, the architectural firm working on the project, told commissioners that the design of Phase 1 is conceptual at this time, but that it would allow for construction to begin while inmates are still being housed there. This fall, the new jail is set to open and inmates will soon be housed there.

Schwartzman also noted that the project provides for the long-term needs of the county and its growth and that it seems to be a viable option.

Carolyn Drude with Ehlers, Inc., a finance firm, told commissioners that the county could spend its own money at this time and then bond for the project next summer.

"There isn't any reason you couldn't issue bonds at another time," said Drude.

Anderson questioned what the annual payments would be, asking if there was any way of knowing that answer now. He was told no.

Commissioner Jerry Johnson said, "At some point, we have to do something, regardless. The [employees of the] court have asked us to secure the courts and we can do that this way."

With the remodel of the courthouse, inmates will no longer be brought through the public areas, but will be brought through secure areas.

During the discussion, Commissioner Dan Olson mentioned that the county could have had this project completed by now had it gone with a green site with the Douglas County Jail.

"We backed ourselves into a corner and now don't know what to do," said Olson. "There is so much should-a, would-a, could-a. I just don't know what we can do at this point but move forward."

After a somewhat lengthy discussion on the bond, bond payments, interest and principal, Anderson asked if the commissioners were ready for a motion.

Commissioner Norm Salto said, "Well, no guts, no glory," and then made the motion to proceed with Phase 1, using the county's general fund for the time being and then later, adopting a resolution for reimbursement through bonding.

In other news

During the public comment period of the meeting, two Douglas County residents spoke before the board - Alan Roebke and Don Roesner.

Roebke is a Republican candidate running for the 7th District seat currently held by Representative Collin Peterson. He questioned the balloting process used for the 2008 election.

Roebke asked if the commissioners "would protect the sacred ballot of our Democracy and the ultimate right of the voters' ballot to be counted."

He asked that any properly cast ballot be counted and that no one can declare a ballot dead until it's been counted and recorded.

Referring back to the 2008 election, Roebke said that in Douglas County he thought that half of the 40 absentee ballots should still be in play. This means, he said, that of the 12,000 absentee ballots in the state, about half are still good or at least 4,000 of them are.

At the meeting, Roebke said, "The ballot is sacred. We can't let the Legislature or the Supreme Court play games. Don't damage the sanctity of the ballot."

He added that Douglas County has an obligation to its residents to look at the absentee ballots from 2008 and that the ballots should be reviewed.

Roesner had an issue with the channel restrictions placed between Lakes Victoria and Geneva.

First, he praised the Department of Natural Resources and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, explaining that personnel from both departments have done a wonderful job doing what they were told.

However, he said the commissioners, along with the Land and Resource Management, set them up to fail.

He believes the channel restrictions were wrong and that the ordinance is not enforceable.

"The sheriff's office has done a wonderful job, but they are not engineers," said Roesner, explaining that he has a problem with what has been put in place to restrict boat traffic between the channels - buoys that are tied together with steel cables.

He said the markers make it unsafe for other traffic, such as non-motorized watercraft like canoes and paddleboats, which are authorized to go through the channel.

After a brief discussion on the topic, Land and Resource Management Director Dave Rush said the issue could be looked at.

Commissioner Anderson told Roesner, "We will look into it for you."