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County Board sends $8.4M bonding request back for retooling

St. Croix County supervisors decided an $8.4 million borrowing request to fund three projects wasn't ready for prime time.

County Board on Tuesday, May 7, rejected the request, which would have sold bonds to fund a "special needs" wing in the jail, a heating-air-conditioning and-ventilation (HVAC) overhaul to the Government Center and a new mobile command vehicle.

Citing concerns over the mobile command vehicle's inclusion in the request — in addition to raising questions about adding to the county's debt load — board members voted 12-5 to send the request back to committees for retooling.

Supervisor Tom Coulter offered the motion after nearly two hours of presentations and questions about the request.

"I'm not persuaded by anything that I've heard that we really need this," he said of the command vehicle, which, at $400,000, would replace the county's 20-year-old vehicle.

County Administrator Pat Thompson asked Coulter whether his motion to refer the issue back to committees was just for the command vehicle or all three projects in the funding package.

"No, I'm talking about the whole enchilada," Coulter said.

Supervisor Roy Sjoberg backed the motion, saying that while he was supportive of the jail and HVAC projects, the command vehicle request left him with questions. He wondered aloud why, after a nine-month water quality study, funding for that issue wasn't proposed.

"Maybe there's other equally high priorities," Sjoberg told board members. "So this is the one time we go to the well, folks."

St. Croix County's Public Protection and Administration committees will now likely reconsider the issue after both bodies previously passed measures in support of it last month.

The borrowing request saw testimony Tuesday from Scott Needham, St. Croix County Circuit Court's presiding judge, who told board members about a growing need to accommodate inmates with mental health issues. He described how the jail project would create space for inmates awaiting competency evaluations.

The problem, Needham said, is inmates don't go to the state's secure mental health facility for evaluations as soon as judges give the order. He said that facility has a six-week waiting period, requiring the inmates to stay in county jail.

"We're not going to be putting them back in the community," the judge said.

Needham said the situation surrounding inmates awaiting competency evaluations has "grown exponentially" in recent years. He said St. Croix County courts ordered 10 such evaluations in 2015 and 60 in 2018.

The prospects for 2019 are "looking no better than they did in 2018," Needham said.

When asked by Supervisor Dan Hansen if a jail expansion is merely "a Band-Aid" in advance of a completely new jail, Needham said the question was "out of my bailiwick." Sheriff Scott Knudson later responded, telling Hansen the current facility — with an expanded special needs wing — would last "well into the future."

Knudson noted the 10 new proposed special-needs cells would be for inmates experiencing substance withdrawals as well as those in need of mental health services.

An official with the construction firm Kraus-Anderson told board members the $5.3 million jail project would take about eight months to complete. St. Croix County Facilities Director Jim Elsbury said "soft bids" have been taken from the project.

The next Administration Committee meeting is May 20. The Public Protection and Judiciary Committee next meets June 7.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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