ST. CLOUD (WJON News) -- Stearns County has some big decisions to make on the future of the law enforcement center.

For the past 2 1/2 years county leaders have been putting together a space needs study for the sheriff's office, the jail, and the courthouse. The consensus is a new Stearns County Justice Complex is needed, however where it is built and what that will look like remains to be seen.

Thirteen years ago the county jail expanded into the former St. Cloud Police Department space, but now they've run out of room there as well. Sheriff Steve Soyka says right now they have a 150 bed jail, but they are required by the Department of Corrections to have open cells.

We're, on a regular basis, housing right around 140, which is right on the edge in-house.  Then we house people outside because we're overcrowded so we do have people in Benton, Mille Lacs, Morrison and about 30 in Wright County right now.

The building was built in 1987. Soyka says their large automated doors and the generator are outdated.

He says the courtrooms are also out of space with nine judges currently working in Stearns County with enough work for 9 1/2 judges. Soyka says the study suggested we'll need a 10th judge within the next five years, but we don't have chambers for them right now.

Because St. Cloud is the county seat it does have to be in the city limits of St. Cloud.

One option is to expand on the current buildings to the west meaning taking over the block where Howie's is right now along with the Post Office.

The study has also identified three options for alternate sites including the former Electrolux property, a vacant lot south of Interstate 94 near McStop, and a vacant property west of Modern Barnyard which would have to be annexed from St. Joseph Township.

Soyka says expanding downtown would take longer and is the most expensive option.

You can only bring in so many materials and supplies then you build and then truck in more.  If you're on an alternate site in a field you can bring in everything that you need at one time and workers can just get to work.

Soyka says a downtown expansion would take six to 10 years to complete, while an alternate site could be completed in two to four years. He says he supports an alternate site because there would be less staffing at a brand-new facility and they could also build in more space for inmate programs as well.

Only criminal justice-related professions would move to a new complex. Sheriff's Office, Jail, county attorney, and courts system.  The County Administration and other offices would remain downtown.

1 downtown design option, image courtesy of Stearns County
1 downtown design option, image courtesy of Stearns County
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The study indicates the sticker price for a new Stearns County Justice Complex will be right around $300 million. The plan to pay for it may be in the form of a new half-cent sales tax which must first get the blessing of the State Legislature and then be brought to the county residents for a vote.

Soyka says a sales tax is preferred over a property tax increase because a majority of the inmates in the county jail are not Stearns County residents so non-county residents should help pay for it.

Right around 60 or 63 percent of our generalized inmate population is not St. Cloud or Stearns County residents, they are people that come from other areas of the state or country.

Soyka says a new Justice Complex would be designed as a 50 to 60-year facility.

County Commissioners are still meeting and considering their options. Soyka says he expects several town hall meetings will be scheduled this summer throughout the county to gather public feedback.

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