Commissioners and sheriff discuss jail inspection, future needs

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Sheriff John DeGeorge and jail administrator Jamie Fenske attended the Tuesday, Aug. 6, Fillmore County commissioners meeting to speak about the jail inspection by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

“Jail inspection – we just had it with the same inspector we’ve had for three years,” DeGeorge noted. “It was pretty short, nothing real unexpected. We had a 100 percent compliance rate of our mandatory criteria and 90 percent of our essential. The 90 percent is due to the facility itself and the logistical things….”

Fenske contributed, “Part of it was program space, not having recreation space in the winter, and the deterioration of our building, but it does talk about how we’ve made improvements.”

Commissioner Duane Bakke asked whether the sinks in the jail have been replaced as planned, and Fenske answered that they had, but the building is still in need of maintenance repairs to keep it useful.

“A lot of it is getting to the point where it’s not functional and we’ve got to have some kind of a plan to address issues,” Fenske said. “We improved the showers…we have to continue to keep things up to standards.”

Bakke wanted to know if it would be possible to put a removable roof over the outdoor recreation area, but Fenske was uncertain about the feasibility and practicality.

DeGeorge acknowledged the cumbersome building and how it affects the jail staff’s ability to segregate inmates by classification, gender and offenses committed.

“There’s a lot of items in this report. We lack the ability to separate inmates based on classification, limited our ability to segregate according to gender, offense…all those difficulties exist,” he said.

Commissioner Mitch Lentz wanted to know, “We’ve come a long way, but still, what are all the plans for our jail? We’ve replaced the HVAC, talking about replacing the roof, need to make sure we have a maintenance plan because we don’t have a building maintenance (person).”

DeGeorge remarked that the jail staff and county maintenance do what they can to keep the jail in shape, but also noted it’s the second-oldest jail in Minnesota. “We’ve talked about it in law enforcement committee, and we’re going to have to start making decisions about what’s next for our jail. Watching Winona County (build), we’re learning from them. I think the next step is continuing to maintain the jail, but every time something comes up, we have to ask that question, knowing that the Department of Corrections…it’s the way the building is built. We just can’t continue to fix things. We’ve got to come up with a better solution.”

Commissioner Randy Dahl volunteered, “I agree that we need a new facility, but it’s one that’s got to be appropriate to Fillmore County. I support having people here.”

He inferred that there is the liability of transporting inmates to another facility as he said, “Having deputies on the road with people…I like them being here close to the courthouse, close to family, things that can give them support while they’re here, and keeping things safer.”

The county still has debt to repay for the courthouse’s remodel, according to County Coordinator Bobbie Vickerman.

DeGeorge cautioned against overbuilding if or when the day arrives that a new jail is built. “We’ve seen the mistake in counties our size is that they’ve built bigger than they needed, and now they have to staff it,” he said. “We have the advantage of seeing those mistakes. From 1999 to 2004, we have what I refer to as the ‘meth lab boom’ and everyone’s jail was full, before federal control, and that’s when studies were done and those jails were built.”

He went on to ask that the board allow the renewal of the $2,097 Minnesota annual county boat and water safety grant for January 2019 through June 30, 2020, to be used for canoe registration and river tubing safety, which was approved.

Next, Emergency Management Coordinator Don Kullot presented a resolution declaring a state of emergency for July 18 through July 19 to address flooding that occurred in the city of Rushford Village, with preliminary damage assessments setting the cost at $106,000 without the inclusion of county roads, noting that another assessment is forthcoming.

Dahl made the initial motion, and after another motion, the board passed the measure.

Conversation then turned toward the emergency event process, as one commissioner signing the resolution declaring an emergency could feel that his signature is representing the entire board.

The emergency event process resolution could empower mayors and city officials to proceed with some of the necessary work to declare their municipalities in a state of emergency. DeGeorge reminded the board that the work to declare a state of emergency follows a structure and that it doesn’t happen without that process.