MANDAN, N.D. - In a 3-2 vote on Tuesday, the Morton County Commission approved building a $50 million jail with its neighbor, Burleigh County.
The vote stipulated that Morton County has 13 percent ownership, a memorandum of understanding spell out the joint agreement, a joint detention center operation committee be formed, and that Morton jail staff be hired with the new jail.
All would be contingent upon a home rule charter and half-penny sales tax being approved by voters next June to help pay for the jail in each county.
The jail will be able to hold roughly 460 inmates from both counties when completed and would be located in southeast Bismarck.
Operation costs would be shared based on inmate numbers from each county, which would be counted every year under an agreement being discussed. Early estimates have Morton County paying about 27 percent of the costs.
Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert said the next step is to seek design offers for a jail and prepare the terms of a memorandum of understanding for both counties to approve.
He spoke to the Morton County Commission on Tuesday to answer commissioners' questions and update them on the jail plans after officials from both counties met about questions on a joint jail. Heinert said he wants a blueprint of the facility and firm costs for the public presentations by March. He said both counties' needs were considered in an early design concept done by consultant Kimme & Associates, but both counties would have a future say in design plans.
"It's obvious we need to do something," Morton County Sheriff Dave Shipman said of the space shortage. He said the meeting between the jail committees went well and he found Burleigh County open to answering questions.
Commissioners Ron Leingang and Jim Boehm voted against the joint jail concept.
Leingang said he felt more comfortable having local control of a jail and said Morton County could not know how much operation costs would be in the future.
Boehm agreed. "If we go to a vote of the people, are they going to go with a facility in Bismarck?" he asked. "Even though it costs more to build local, it is a Mandan facility and I think the people of Mandan will be more willing to support it here than in Burleigh County."
Boehm asked what it meant for jail staff moving to Burleigh County.
Heinert assured that Burleigh County's human resources would base salaries on experience. He said both counties have similar hiring requirements.
"Nobody is going to lose in salaries. In many cases, it will be more," Heinert said. He said rank could not be guaranteed for either county's staff because that was being adjusted to meet the new jail's needs, but there would be more staff.
Commissioner Andy Zachmeier expressed strong concerns about how long local deputies and police officers would spend transporting prisoners to east Bismarck and booking them into the jail, but in the end he voted in favor of the motion. He said total travel time alone could be 40 minutes back and forth.
"I am confident when we have a 'one-stop shop,' we will get our officers back on the street and not tied up in the jail," Shipman said when asked about the process. He said Mandan officers have the same concerns.
Commissioner Cody Schulz made the motion late in the meeting to approve the joint jail. There was a long silence without a motion to second it.
While Commission Chairman Bruce Strinden supported the combined jail, he could not second it because he is the commission's chairman.
He said in discussion that last November's straw vote showed Morton County residents favored building a jail with Burleigh County by at least 70 percent.
Strinden said it would cost Morton County $14 million to $17 million to expand its existing jail and take 12 years to pay off with a half-cent sales tax by itself. He said a bond issue would increase property taxes for 15 years for an expansion if Morton County paid for one alone.
He said with both counties using a half-cent sales tax, the jail could be paid off in six years.
After a second call, Zachmeier seconded the motion, but said the joint agreement must deal with speeding up the transport/booking issues of inmates and getting officers back on the streets to patrol.
He said with possible larger annexations, future options to build a new jail will be limited. "We have very little room to expand. It (expansion) will get us by here the next 50 years, but at some point this facility is going to be landlocked and where do you build another one," Zachmeier said.
"I'm glad decisions have been made. Now it's time to get working on a joint facility with Burleigh County," Shipman said after the decision.
Shipman supported the commission's action even though transportation and booking need to be worked through.
"There will be an increase (in time) getting to and from the facility, but early discussion was to get the officer in and out of the center as quickly as possible. I am confident that will happen and we will come to an agreement between all four entities (Burleigh County, Morton County and the cities of Bismarck and Mandan)," he said.
Shipman said two transport teams might be needed — one on each side of the river — if the counties decide to use that system in a future agreement.
Heinert said right now both counties need about 225 beds a day, but federal authorities are also seeking to reserve jail space at the future jail. He said the jail was up to four years away from being opened.
"If we keep growing (in inmate numbers) we could be at 300 by the time we move in," he said of the two counties.
Heinert plans to start drafting a memorandum of understanding for the jail by meeting with both state's attorneys, he said.