Itasca County voters to decide how to pay for new justice center

Itasca County voters heading to the polls this election cycle will have to decide what type of tax increase they’ll have to pay for the county’s new jail.
Published: Oct. 27, 2022 at 6:26 PM CDT
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GRAND RAPIDS, MN. (Northern News Now) - Itasca County voters heading to the polls this election cycle will have to decide what type of tax increase they’ll have to pay for the county’s new jail.

Voters will have to choose whether to approve a 1% sales tax on items like retail goods or rentals sold throughout the county. The increase would start January 1, 2023. According to the county, the tax increase does not include items like food or clothing.

If voters vote down the initiative, county residents will see a 10% property tax increase that will take effect in 2024.

The full question on the ballot is as follows:

“Shall Itasca County be authorized to impose a sales and use tax of one percent to finance $75 million for the new Itasca County Criminal Justice Center, which is currently under construction in downtown Grand Rapids? The sales tax would be used solely to finance new construction and upgrades of the county’s correctional and court facilities (plus the costs to issue bonds) and remain in effect for 30 years or until project is paid for, whichever comes first.”

Barbara Popkin, a Grand Rapids resident, talked about paying for the jail as “important.”

“I feel it’s an important thing to accomplish,” she said.

Popkin has lived in Grand Rapids since the 1960s, she said her husband actually worked in the Itasca County jail at one time. She said she is leaning toward supporting the sales tax increase.

“I personally get a better deal if I vote for the one percent on everything I purchase,” Popkin said.

Plans for the new criminal justice center were created after the state sent a letter to the county after the Minnesota Department of Corrections said the current jail did not meet health and safety standards. Voters are going to pay for a 30-year bond that was given to the county to build the new jail.

“We wanted to give our voters and our public a chance to decide how we want to pay for this new construction,” Brett Skyles, the Itasca County Administrator, said.

The new justice center will include not just the jail, but new courtrooms and the Itasca County Attorney’s office.

“It’s about $75 million total project cost,” Skyles said.

The current county jail is about 20,000 square feet. The new facility is closer to 60,000 square feet, tripling the total floor space.

Lucas Thompson, the Itasca County Jail Captain, talked about how programming was a major factor in designing the jail.

“I think programming for this design took front seat because of the lack of space we have in our current facility,” he said, “so we understood what it was like to be restrained.”

The project began a long time ago he said.

“The design part itself was probably a year and a half,” he continued, “we did 18 months alone on a jail taskforce prior to vote.”

The current jail has 107 beds according to Thompson, but now there will be 184 in the new facility. Thompson said he is excited as opening day gets closer.

“Everyday I come in there will be a new block wall up,” he said, “there’s probably going to be 100,000 cinderblocks in here.”

Thompson said he hoped the jail will start housing inmates by December 2023. Two weeks prior to opening, he said the public will be able to tour the new jail.