Oconto Co. Oks Up to $25 Million Bonds For New Jail By Courthouse
After a decade and a half of indecision, Oconto County Board on Thursday, Sept. 19 jumped two major hurdles on the road toward construction of a new jail/law enforcement center. Motions verifying need for a new law enforcement center, tentatively locating it adjacent to the courthouse and authorizing steps toward borrowing up to $25 million to pay for it were approved by very healthy margins.
In my 18 years as County Board Chair this is maybe the toughest decision we have ever had to make, County Board Chair Lee Rymer declared before the vote. I know the Mayor worries about the cost to the people of Oconto, but that may be offset. He said the cost to the owner of a property valued at $100,000 will be about $25 a year for the term of the bond issue. The cost of bonding rose about $3 million in the last six months and is likely to keep rising. People are saying weve waited too long... Lets get it done...The time is here to make the touch decisions...I recommend we pass this resolution!
Administrative Coordina-tor Kevin Hamann stressed those votes were just the beginning. There will be several more votes along the way before the first dollar can be borrowed, or the first shovel turned for the construction project.
Despite pleas from Oconto Mayor Victoria Bostedt to not put more burden on the citys hard-pressed property taxpayers, the board voted 29 to 2 in favor of the location adjacent to the courthouse in downtown Oconto. The only opposing votes were cast by Supervisors Rose Stellmacher and Vernon Zoeller. The courthouse site will cost the city some tax base but save construction costs for the county and reduce operating expenses when it is in use.
From day one I was opposed to the site on County S. I feel 100 percent better! declared Supervisor Bill Grady after the vote on location.
There seems little doubt that a new or at least expanded jail is needed. For several years the county has been sending overflow prisoners to jails in nearby counties, generally Marinette County, which itself is beginning to feel some overcrowding.
The decision to build in the city was made partly in response to a Town of Riverview vote on , Aug. 22 not to allow the city to annex the 14.6-acre proposed jail site and the section of North Park Avenue that leads to it. The county already owns this parcel and soil tests showed satisfactory conditions for construction, but there has been much opposition from those in favor of either a jail adjoining the courthouse, or an entirely different location, such as in Oconto Falls, where land had been offered at no charge.
The agreement formerly reached between the City of Oconto and the Town of Little River relative to annexing the site included a provision that it would go into effect only if county residents approved jail financing in a referendum vote.
Subsequently county officials learned that a new law allows them to move forward with bonding for the law enforcement center without a referendum. It can be done with approval of a super majority of the County Board - 75 percent. That margin was readily achieved Thursday with a vote of 28 in favor, four more than the needed majority, to three opposed. Voting against the bonding resolution were supervisors Stellmacher, Zoeller and Terry Brazeau. Stellmacher said the people of Little River and elsewhere in the county would be upset because there will be no referendum. She said that had been the assumption for years. Hamann said that was his fault, because he had incorrectly interpreted state statutes.
Borrowing must be done within five years for the vote to remain valid. It is expected that even with Thursdays affirmative vote, actual construction is at lest two to three years in the future.
The County Board room was packed with observers, many of them with rather strong feelings on one side or the other on the jail issue. However, the crowd remained orderly and there were no disruptions.
Rymer had advised supervisors at their August meeting that a decision on the referendum issue would be expected in September. At that time construction was still expected on the Little River site. The Little River Town Board met that evening and declined to change their agreement.
At the start of the law enforcement center discussion on Thursday Hamann reiterated the need for new jail facilities that has been under discussion for 15 years. He cited the Kimme study, state jail inspection reports stating the existing facility is antiquated, and growing inmate populations.
In 1994 the jail population was generally in the 20s, Hamann said, now its in the 70s and I expect that to increase steadily. Currently they are paying to have 13 prisoners housed in jails outside the county, seven are in the old juvenile facility, and at any given time there are two to six out on the bracelet system. He added that if they need to have prisoners housed at jails that are far away, it will get very, very costly.
Hamann said the County Clerk gave him a state report from 1998 that projected future jail populations. Their numbers have been right on so far, and they predict by 2015 the Oconto County jail population will be close to 100, he said, adding, Our facilities cannot hold them all...All the reports say we need to build on!
Hamann said after learning of the Little River decision they had begun looking more closely at the option of building adjacent to the courthouse, and he had polled the 14 neighbors involved. Of 14 inquiries he got 13 back. Of those, 10 were willing to sell, and the others gave a conditional no. NEWCAP prefers not to sell, one owner has just remodeled, and one owes more than the property is worth.
The Law Enforcement Committee has indicated its intent to build adjacent to the Courthouse, and several supervisors commented that is the site their constituents feel is best.
Hamann explained the question supervisors would be asked to vote on is, Should we intend to build it on the block north of the courthouse? He explained that even if they vote that is the intent they would need at a later meeting to rescind their vote of intending to build on the County S site in Little River, and then do a resolution directing the county to proceed with acquiring the properties north of the courthouse.
Rymer noted some supervisors who have been vocal in their opposition to the County S site might support the resolution with the courthouse site.
There also was talk of savings to be realized by being able to keep the 911 Communications Center in its existing location at the courthouse, and possibly reuse some of the current jail/law enforcement facilities.
A brief recess was called in County Board proceedings for a meeting of the Law Enforcement Committee in an adjoining room.
There, Supervisor Gerald Beekman contended there is still nothing wrong with the County S site and they should keep it as a backup. The committee agreed they should not dispose of the land.
As Mayor of Oconto, I am pleading with you not to do this to us, Bostedt urged the committee. She said with the Hwy. 41 by-pass the city lost a million dollars of property value, and this will take another million off the tax rolls, a double whammy to us.
Our poor people in the city are struggling, she said, adding that water rates are up 44 percent and she has watched people standing in line to make monthly payments on their water bills. Now our residents will be taxed once to pay for the building and pay again with loss of tax base. This affects every single person! She said the city is $18 million in debt, and she is doing her best to bring things into the city, but if things keep going up it gets more difficult.
People have been telling us for years this is where the Law Enforcement Center belongs - adjacent to the courthouse, Rymer replied, adding that keeping it in the city will keep employees in the city.
As the Law Enforcement Committee we represent the whole county and we have to act in their interests, declared Supervisor Buzz Kamke, a member of the Law Enforcement Committee.
Committee endorsement of the courthouse site was unanimous.
Back in the board room, Mayor Bostedt repeated her request that the county not take the properties off the tax roll, but with the same result, and County Board voted 29 to 2 in favor of the amendment and approved the resolution declaring intent to build a law enforcement center.
Before the vote, Stellmacher said she was surprised they were not telling the board the cost of the properties around the courthouse.
Hamann said the county will spend for land acquisition, but save elsewhere. Cost of running sewer and water to the County S site would be about $5 million. He said fair market value of the 13 privately owned properties is $850,000. The NEWCAP property, already tax exempt because it belongs to a non profit entity, is valued at $150,000 to $250,000, bringing the total to about $1 million.
The citys total tax levy is about $1.5 million on $187 million of equalized value, so loss of the properties will mean $7,000 will be divided among the remaining properties.
Hamann said economies resulting from being adjacent to the courthouse will save the county money for several decades, and predicted that will more than offset the additional land acquisition costs.
Supervisor Bill Grady, long a vocal opponent of the County S site, recalled that two years ago the vote had been 20 to 10 to build there, and asked, When can we get rid of that?
He was told they could rescind that resolution as early as next month.
Hamann said they will need to do soil tests on the properties around the courthouse, and asked that the resolution not specify just the north side, since they may need additional properties for parking and other needs. They would hope to go through eminent domain on all the properties, and thus pay just fair market value. They would also need to do a relocation plan for the residents, and he expected most of them will remain in the city, just in other locations.
Before the resolution of intent to issue the bonds of up to $25 million Hamann explained wording was drafted by the law firm of Quarles and Brady as advised by Jeff Belongia, the countys financial advisor. This resolution is simply a statement of intent and does not raise the tax levy. When the designs are drawn and estimates are prepared there will be another resolution with the actual bond amount, interest rates and other details.
Supervisor Gooding said there are many checks and balances along the way, and if they end up with a building that costs $10 million less, the actual bond issue would be for only that amount. He said they also may be able to pay for it with the sales tax, rather than putting it on the property tax levy. Hamann said that could happen if the sales tax goes up 10 percent year as it has in the past. As currently planned, half of the debt payment would come from sales tax proceeds, which are dedicated to capital improvements, and half from property taxes.
Stellmacher asked at what point they would need to budget for the facility. Hamann said he would use money the county has already set aside to buy the property, hire an architect, etc.
Stellmacher was concerned that if they approve the $25 million, that is what we will spend. Hamann said they will only know the actual cost after they have a design plan and get bids, probably two to three years in the future.
After the jail issues were settled the board went into closed session to discuss the MarOco lawsuit, and after an hour retuned to open session and unanimously approved the mediated settlement, as well as the MarOco Operating and Administrative budgets for 2014. Landfill Administrator John LeFebvre said the MarOco budget has no anticipated tax levy from either county, and there was no increase in tipping fees this year.
This is a great example of two counties working together, declared Rymer. He noted there was much controversy when the landfill was started, but the venture had even won a WCA award for cooperation between counties.
The board approved a compromise agreement worked out before Mediator Larry Jeske settled a lawsuit over boundary lines involving Oconto County and Darrell and Anita Wagenknecht that will involve removing some land from the forest management program. The DNR and the Circuit Court are to be notified. Attorney Andrew Smith represented the county in the negotiations and Attorney Barbara Morrison represented the Wagenknechts.
The board approved a resolution paving the way for closing the courthouse from 2 to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 29 for a full scale Intruder Alert exercise. All employees will participate. Stellmacher urged giving the shut-down ample publicity, and was concerned about the possible couple that picks that afternoon to drive down from Townsend for a Marriage License or other county business. She was assured it will be well publicized.
A decision of the Planning and Zoning Department to deny a zoning change requested by Timothy Hanaway for his existing auto body repair shop in the Town of Oconto was upheld by unanimous board vote, despite the town boards recommendation to approve. Reasons were that the area is designated for residential use and the requested Neighborhood Commercial Zoning would be inconsistent with that and with the towns vision and plan and is not consistent with the countys comprehensive plan. No one was present to speak for or against the denial. Supervisor Korzeniewski said there were violations filed in the past on that property and statements were made about violations like burning lacquer in a pit.
Among Zoning Ordinance amendments approved by the board was one which involves Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Fairhaven Baptist Church in a lot reconfiguration to allow access to Fairhaven lane off Hwy. 141, and eventually will allow the DOT to sell a 24.9 acre parcel it owns there.
The board approved several other zoning changes, including:
*A 2.72 acre parcel owned by Lawrence Karcz and Evelyn Dumas, Town of Chase, from Agricultural to Rural Residential to allow building a new dwelling;
*A 3-acre parcel owned by Riegert Farms in the Town of Maple Valley from Agricultural to Rural Residential to allow sale of the residence while keeping the remainder of the farm;
*A 3.16 acre parcel to be split from property owned by Dennis ONeil in the Town of Oconto, from Agricultural to Rural Residential, to split off the residence;
*Combining lots on a 6 acre parcel owned by Marianna Demyer on St. Patricks Road in the Town of Stiles and rezoning from rural residential to residential single family to bring them into compliance.
Also approved were:
*Forgiveness of illegal taxes totaling $2,278.14 and assessment errors totaling $183.08, as recommended by the Land Information Systems subcommittee of the Forest, Park & Recreation Committee;
*Purchase of an FB 85 Power Broom from Road Tech for $58,486 as recommended by the Highway Committee;
*Contracting with Clean Right Services, LLC for $5,506.30 per month on a 2-year contract, the same price as for the previous two years of janitorial services.
*Contracting with Helmle Construction, Inc. of Little Suamico for the low bid price of $16,178 to build two ATV bridge decks with funding from ATV grants. The next lowest bid was for $33,134, and the high bid ws $58,125. Some supervisors were concerned over the price difference, but the board was assured by Parks and Recreation Committee spokesmen that they have worked with Helmle before with very satisfactory results. The Bridge Rehabilitation grants are for $23,000.
Stellmacher reported the Oconto County Economic Development Corporation has started calling on companies and expects to visit all manufacturers in the county by spring. They are working on financing a motel in Oconto Falls, for which half the money must come from private investors.
Congratulations were extended to Supervisor Grady on his birthday and his 60th wedding anniversary.
Supervisor Ken Linzmeyer announced a fundraiser will be held on Saturday, Oct. 5 at the Lena High School to benefit Kyle Hodkiewicz.
Supervisor Diane Nichols announced the Machickanee Players will perform The Drunkard, or Down With Demon Drink on Oct. 11, 12, 13, 18, 19 and 20.
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