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Grand Forks County pursuing options for sheriff's office; Public Health can stay in county office

Grand Forks Herald - 4/17/2024

Apr. 16—GRAND FORKS — Grand Forks County is taking a catch-all approach in its efforts to find a new home for its sheriff's office.

County commissioners gave the nod Tuesday for the county to put out requests for information from vendors to remodel the old county jail or lease the county space with a long-term option to buy.

Commissioners also gave the go-ahead for a request for qualifications from Realtors who could assist the county in purchasing an existing property for the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Office.

The county is attempting to find the sheriff's office a new space on

a limited budget and ideally before a 2026 deadline,

when the city of Grand Forks would like to expand its police department into the space in its Fifth Street headquarters currently occupied by the sheriff.

Commissioners, particularly Commissioner Mark Rustad, pushed to give potential vendors broad leeway to propose new options for the sheriff.

"We can be nimble, right?" Rustad said. "We're in a financial position where we have to be."

The commission did take some options off the table.

After receiving negative feedback from the state Health and Human Services Department, which operates the Human Service Zone in the county office building, commissioners nixed moving the sheriff's office into the building.

Commissioners also roundly rejected the idea of putting a referendum before voters to pursue a property tax increase or sales tax increase to pay for the sheriff's office.

"You know what would happen with that in this climate," Commissioner David Engen said.

That decision likely means the highest-dollar proposal County Administrator Tom Ford brought to commissioners two weeks ago — a $20.2 million plan to build a new space for the sheriff and state's attorney — is off the table, at least for now.

County Auditor Debbie Nelson's most recent estimate has the county able to finance up to $9 million or as much as $16.9 million with several years of interest-only payments, using the remainder of the county's capital construction levy.

"I've heard that we don't have any money," Nelson said. "The county has plenty of money to fund the things we have. What we don't have is any levy authority to build another building."

Another proposal would have the county spend $13.5 million to build a new sheriff's office without space for the state's attorney, though that estimate would not factor in a land purchase or demolition of existing property like the old county jail.

Commissioners did not take a formal vote on these decisions. The commission was responding to queries from the ad-hoc committee charged with finding the sheriff's office a new home.

Commissioners say Public Health can stay

Grand Forks Public Health can continue to reside in the county office building rent-free once a reciprocal leasing agreement with the city of Grand Forks expires, commissioners voted.

Commissioners say the public health department, which is jointly funded by the city and county and administered by the city, will not be charged rent if it continues to operate in its current location after the sheriff's office completes its move out of the Grand Forks Police Department's headquarters.

"I would like to keep the public health department here," said Commissioner Bob Rost, who put forth the proposal. "I think they provide a valuable service to the county and the city and there are a couple different agencies within this building I think rely on them a little bit."

Under a long-standing deal with the city, the sheriff's office was not charged for using space in police headquarters in exchange for the same courtesy for public health.

That agreement is expected to expire with the sheriff's planned move from police headquarters, and a proposal would move Grand Forks Public Health

from the county office building to a new, larger space in the Franklin on Fourth building

across from City Hall.

But some City Council members have balked at the cost to fit and furnish and lease the new space.

Cost estimates for the Franklin on Fourth space project $200,000 per year in rent plus another $1.5 million to fit and furnish the space. The county would pay an estimated $82,343 per year for public health to operate at Franklin on Fourth.

"Our jobs are always to look out for the taxpayers' wallets and, for me, to go from not paying to paying is the biggest no-brainer," Rustad said.

In other news:

* Commissioners approved the addition of a correctional officer to support substance use programming at the Grand Forks County Correctional Center. Three-quarters of the new employee's salary will be paid using opioid settlement funds for the next several years, with the remainder to come out of the correctional center's budget, per Administrator Bret Burkholder. Substance use programming is conducted by private vendors and paid for by the state.

* The sheriff's office will use funds from the National Recreational Boat Safety Program grant to purchase sonar equipment for its boat patrols on the Red River. The sheriff applies for the grant annually to pay for equipment and deputies' time on patrol.


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