Tuesday, August 24, 2010

County justice center proponents seek public support

By William Frantz*

This drawing shows the projected design for the new Houghton County Justice Center to be located to the west of the present Houghton County Courthouse. (Photo © 2010 and courtesy Bill Fink Communications, LLC. Reprinted with permission.)

HOUGHTON -- In fall of 2009, the Houghton County Commissioners Office asked their Law Enforcement Committee to conduct a study of the current jail and district courtroom facilities. The committee was asked to recommend the changes required to better serve current laws and state regulations; they were also instructed to inquire on potential locations for the new facility. As a result of their investigation, Houghton County officials came to the official conclusion that virtually nothing in the current jail and courthouse meets current standards and state-mandated requirements. Staff and inmate safety, legal affairs and rehabilitation were found to be sub-standard.

County officials proposed a solution: a justice center, to be built on the county-owned property directly west of the existing court house.

Nearly a year later on a warm Tuesday evening in the Houghton County town hall, the outrage and dispute from taxpaying citizens could be heard. Individuals wondering why other options had not been explored were quickly informed by officials that there were no other plausible alternatives.

"We are just jumping through hoops. Why aren’t other alternatives to this justice center being explored? You (the commissioners) are running us around in circles," said Mary Ann Predebon, a taxpaying citizen of Houghton County opposed to the justice center.

For each public proposal, the commissioners gave a valid reason why the justice center was a better choice. One of the alternative proposals included constructing the new justice center near the county airport, home of the Houghton county jail work camp facility. This possibility was deemed unfeasible because of the distance between the airport and the circuit courtroom as well as the increased risk of inmate transportation.

Another alternative presented at the discussion was a suggestion to add a second floor to the existing jail. The commissioners insist that even with a full second floor, the existing jail footprint of 7,900 sq. ft. is too small for present and future needs. Previous engineering studies have also determined that existing walls could not support a second floor.

"The existing facility is insufficient and outdated," said Marjorie Chandonais, captain of the current Houghton County jail. "If you look at all of the facts, it (the justice center) is the only logical choice for Houghton County."

Houghton County's main jail and Sheriff's Office as they exist today, next to the Courthouse. (Photo © 2010 and courtesy Bill Fink Communications, LLC. Reprinted with permission.)

Chandonais continued to state additional reasons why the current jail must be replaced. "Every year we have state inspections from Lansing that we fail," she noted.

Chandonais added that electrical, plumbing, spatial and safety issues are all mounting reasons why a new jail is needed.

Many citizens wonder why the recently abandoned state prison Camp Kitwen can’t be used as a new county jail. Camp Kitwen has the capacity and standards needed to fulfill state requirements; however, it is mandated by state law that the Sheriff's office must be located within Houghton city limits.

Citizens are also wondering if Houghton County can afford a $15 million dollar facility.

"You make this sound like it's a done deal, like you've made up your minds and we've got no say in this. Don't forget whose money you're spending," said Predebon.

"The average home owner would pay about $30 a year to pay it off, and that rate would drop with time," said Chandonais when asked how much taxpayers can expect to pay each year for the new facility.

Edward Jenich, financial chairman of the Commissioners Office, insists that $30 a year is a small price to pay to invest in the future of Houghton county. Jenich also stated that the $15 million dollar project is the most practical solution to solve the problem permanently.

Despite public opposition voiced at the July 13, 2010, Houghton County Board of Commissioners Meeting, the commissioners voted three to one in favor of putting the $15 million bond issue to a vote on the Nov. 2, 2010, Election Ballot.**

Although the proposed justice center currently looks like the most viable option, there has not been an official decision. Houghton County commissioners hope to have the issue settled by Fall of 2010.

For more information on the progress of the justice center, as well as the schedule of meetings for presenting the project to the public and local city, village and township officials, please visit http://www.houghtoncounty.net.

Click here for the Report of the Justice Center Study Committee, which is a Power Point presentation including more photos by Bill Fink Communications, LLC.

Click here to access the Houghton County Justice Center Committee Sourcebook, which has many details on the project as well as diagrams showing the proposed design.

Editor's Notes:
* Guest reporter William Frantz wrote this article as part of his work in David Clanaugh's summer journalism class. This is Frantz's second article for Keweenaw Now. See also his July 14, 2010, article "MTEC Smart Zone celebrates grand opening of Michigan Tech Lakeshore Center."

** Click here for the minutes of the July 13, 2010, Houghton County Commissioners meeting.

No comments: