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Williams County Commissioners reaffirm plans for $20 million new jail

WILLISTON, N.D. --Williams County commissioners and department heads decided to go ahead with a jail expansion after sorting out numbers and weighing needs against costs during a special meeting on Friday morning. The project would expand the jai...

 

WILLISTON, N.D. -Williams County commissioners and department heads decided to go ahead with a jail expansion after sorting out numbers and weighing needs against costs during a special meeting on Friday morning.

The project would expand the jail from 132 beds to 240 beds, and likely stop the need to transfer inmates to a facility in Hardin, Mont.

At the meeting, Williams County’s financial officer Kristi Hanson allayed some worries over the affordability of the $20 million jail and law enforcement center expansion, which is part of a larger project including courthouse renovations and an addition to the county administrative building, by explaining that there is already about $38.7 million allocated for the work.

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The amount is made up of $24.6 million that was committed to the project from several reserve and permit funds last April, $13.1 million from a now-defunct one-half percent sales tax that was transferred to the building fund earlier this month, and $1 million generated from a property transfer with the city of Williston at the formerly shared public works building.

The remaining $15.5 million will likely be covered by a loan from the Bank of North Dakota, Hanson said.

Initially, commissioners were bracing for the prospect of borrowing up to about $28 million, based on estimates from last year, and news of the lower amount helped to further alleviate concerns.

“Costs started coming down significantly and the bids came in less,” David Montgomery, the commission’s chairman, said.

Groundbreaking on the jail is planned for this spring. Its construction, along with a three-floor addition to the Williams County Administrative Building, which is across the street, is set to happen simultaneously.

The combined price tag is $54.9 million, an amount that could increase if the two expansions were done separately, said Jim Steinmann, a project manager for Williams County.

“If we separate the contracts I’m sure there would be an increase in cost,” he said during the meeting. “There would probably be a 20 percent increase in decoupling and doing it later.”

Barring the unexpected, expenses for the entire project are likely to wind up around $49 million, Steinmann said, adding that having several million as a contingency plan is reassuring.

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Overcrowding at the existing facility is constant and forced the transfers to Hardin that started several months ago.

Currently, 28 Williams County prisoners are being housed in hARDIN.

On average, the jail here, which was designed to accommodate 132, holds about 120 inmates daily, although for a stretch at the end of last year, counts were as high as 140, said Capt. Verlan Kvande of the Williams County Sheriff’s Office. According to standard law enforcement procedure, a jail is considered at capacity if it is 80 percent full, because some cells are meant to be used for specific purposes, he added.

Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching acknowledged the uncertainty of a large investment while making it clear that present conditions demand action.

“None of us have a crystal ball. We could be down to 40 inmates next year, or we could be up to 200,” he said. “Right now we’re at a bare minimum. There’s some that we’ve let go that need to be in jail. This is about the safety of the inmates and safety of our staff, and the overcrowding that we have right now, it’s not good.”

Still, commissioner Martin Hanson expressed hesitancy over committing to the expense.

“I know it’s unhandy to board prisoners, but if we decide to build it we’re not going to have any more room for two more years, and in two years there are going to be other jails. I am deathly afraid that we’re not going to be able to pay for this,” he said. “I’d really hate if we put up a building and pay all these millions of dollars and find out we’re not going to need it.”

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