New Itasca County Jail to house up to 40 Cass inmates starting next year
The facility agreement approved by the Cass County Board represents a switch from its current partner Crow Wing County after an 18-year contractual relationship.
WALKER — The Cass County Board approved a change in jail operations it says will save taxpayers $170,000 each year.
Commissioners on Tuesday, Nov. 7, unanimously approved a facility agreement to house inmates in Itasca County, which represents a switch from its current partner Crow Wing County after an 18-year contractual relationship. The new agreement will go into effect June 1, 2024.
Cass County Administrator Josh Stevenson said the main driver of the switch is the cost savings. The new contract offers 40 beds guaranteed for Cass County use, the same number Crow Wing County offered. But the cost per day per inmate is $56.55 in Itasca, versus the $68.02 presented by Crow Wing in its next proposed contract extension.
The increase is because for years, Cass County received a reduced rate, reflecting its investment into Crow Wing County’s jail facility when it was built in the mid-2000s. But that building debt has since been paid off.
“The second one would be ease of access for support staff to get to our inmates,” Stevenson said. “That would include attorney-client privilege discussions, meetings with social workers, meetings with probation officers.
"We see some options here in this other contract that would allow those types of services to happen easier at this different facility.”
While the new Itasca County Jail — expected to open by mid-January — is only 4 miles closer to Walker than the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd, Sheriff Bryan Welk told commissioners he feels it’s more accessible for both sheriff’s office staff and family members of inmates wishing to visit.
Itasca also agreed to provide security services on behalf of Cass County for up to 24 hours if, for example, an inmate needs care in a medical facility in Itasca County. According to Welk, the arrangement with Crow Wing County required deputies to arrive within two hours.
“If we're calling out a deputy in the Cass Lake area, that's two hours. They can't even get down there in that time,” Welk said. “ … That's a win for us. And the other one is, if we have an inmate come back, they just can't refuse them, both parties have to agree. And they (Itasca) agreed to that.”
“Had those issues been concerns in the past with Crow Wing County?” asked Commissioner Bob Kangas. “I don’t want to burn bridges that we can’t get back across if we have to in the future. But have they been addressed, and did they just sweep them aside, or what?”
“Yes, but I think we should have a different meeting to discuss that,” Welk replied.
“When the … county commissioners decided to do this jail project, what they told the community was we were building a jail bigger than we could house so we could get contracts. I felt it was my duty to get inmates in that space.”Itasca County Sheriff Joe Dasovich
Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk, whose previous career in law enforcement included him retiring as a captain in the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office, said he’s personal friends with Crow Wing County Sheriff Eric Klang and was a part of the administration when the original arrangement was established.
“I know like with any partnership, things come up, and things came up along the way, and I fully expect that things will come up with Itasca,” Gaalswyk said. “And they’ll need to be worked on, and as much as it seems appropriate, Sheriff, you keep the board involved, because we’re … the ones that have to approve the contract. You’re the ones, you and Chris (Thompson, jail administrator), are the ones that have to make it work.”
Another benefit cited by Welk is access to embedded social workers and psychologists in Itasca, which will have beds dedicated to a mental health wing. This is not included in the contract, but he noted the services are accessible within the jail.
Itasca County Sheriff Joe Dasovich said this offering will be unique to his county.
“Some jails tout the amount of programming that they offer. Some jails can talk about a lot,” Dasovich said in a phone interview Thursday. “But we actually are the only one in the state with somebody that is a clinical mental health practitioner that is a member of our Itasca County jail team and sees inmates and gets them to treatments and facilities that better suit them.”
In an interview last week, Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle said the loss of the contract represents a $1 million hole in revenue going forward. He said the next step is for Crow Wing to seek out contracts with other counties in need of inmate boarding.
“It is significant, and you know, you can work two sides of the ledger, revenue or expense, and clearly we are and have been in the boarding of inmates business for quite some time,” Houle said, adding the county currently boards Stearns County inmates. “ … We will go look for more inmates.”
While Houle said he understood why Cass County made its decision based on cost savings, he questioned whether Itasca County’s lower daily rate meant local taxpayers would end up subsidizing other counties’ inmates.
Dasovich said he believes the Itasca facility will be run efficiently and the per diem rates aren’t much lower than in other counties. He cited Morrison County as one example with rates lower than Itasca’s.
“We have the space,” Dasovich said. “When the … county commissioners decided to do this jail project, what they told the community was we were building a jail bigger than we could house so we could get contracts. I felt it was my duty to get inmates in that space.”
Welk said the relationship with Crow Wing is ending gracefully and commissioners noted Houle has been quoted as characterizing the change as an opportunity.
Stevenson noted the arrangement is much cheaper than building a new jail, with the costs of materials on the rise.
“The state refuses to spend state money on the construction of jails,” Gaalswyk said. “They think it’s the county’s problem. And so this comes up — I mean, Carlton County, Martin County, Beltrami County — they’re all struggling with not only the cost of building a jail, but where to put it. Not everyone wants a jail next door. So, I think we’re real fortunate that we have partners that are willing.”
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