County set to vote on proposed ‘justice center’ and extensive capital improvement plan during August 22 meeting
WTIP file photo

County set to vote on proposed ‘justice center’ and extensive capital improvement plan during August 22 meeting

Cook County officials are finally set to vote on a plan that could spend nearly $30 million over the next several years updating buildings and other property it owns.

The commissioners are expected to discuss the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and potentially vote on the extent of the proposal during a board meeting August 22 in Grand Marais, according to Cook County Administrator James Joerke.

A public hearing will take place at 9 a.m. in the commissioners’ room at the Cook County Courthouse. This is essentially public comment period specific to the CIP. A vote on the proposal is likely to follow the public hearing.

A significant portion of the proposed project would be a new ‘justice center’ for local law enforcement, the county attorney, and the judicial branch of local government in Cook County. A new courtroom and other facilities would be added to the current law enforcement center near county road 7 and the bottom of the Gunflint Trail. Learn more about the CIP and this specific proposal by clicking here.

Over the next five years, the county anticipates spending between $13.4 million and $30 million to upgrade building systems that are nearing or have exceeded their expected lifetimes, according to county officials. If approved, the county would essentially take out loans, most often referred to as bonds in county documents, to pay for the facility upgrades and changes, according to preliminary reports. The county has also applied to the state for a significant sum, some $8.7 million, that would come in the form of a grant from the office of Minnesota Management and Budget.

The money spent on the project would include things like water heaters and plumbing fixtures, along with updated floors, walls, and ceilings. Other plans could include repairing or replacing windows and doors, and exterior finishes on county-owned buildings. The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) will also include plans for addressing a shortage of workspaces for deputies, garage bay space, and space for evidence processing and storage in the law enforcement center. There will also be a plan to address a shortage of office space in the courthouse.

Joerke says that the main goals in updating the CIP are to increase the reliability of building systems and to reduce long-term operating costs.

Given the extent of needed upgrades and repairs, the county expects to issue bonds to pay for the work, Joerke said during a series of open house-style meetings earlier this year and in late 2022. While interest rates have increased in recent months, the county enjoys a strong bond rating and would qualify for lower rates than a local government with more debt and a weaker cash position, according to Joerke. The county has also been putting levy dollars into a capital improvement fund, he added, the balance of which was around $592,000 at the end of 2022. The amount that the county ultimately will need to finance will depend on the final scope of the CIP and will be determined once the organization updates its financial management plan this spring.

WTIP’s Joe Friedrichs spoke with Joerke about the CIP timeline, including the August 22 meeting. Another topic discussed during the live interview was an update on Thye-Blatnik funding, which are federal dollars the county receives for land entirely within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Joerke also shared an update on the proposed cannabis ordinance being considered by county officials. A public hearing takes place Aug. 22 at 11 a.m. on this proposed ordinance. Listen to the full conversation in the audio below