Berrien County commissioners discuss county facilities, juvenile center

Published 7:55 pm Thursday, February 16, 2023

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ST. JOSEPH — Design plans for a new county juvenile center are nearing completion and Berrien County Commissioners may soon have to grapple with whether they want to also build a new county jail and courthouse.  

The proposed new juvenile center is expected to be built on county owned land on Napier Avenue in Benton Township. The current juvenile center in Berrien Township is nearing the end of its useful life and the cost of renovating it would be more than building a new center. 

County Administrator Brian Dissette reported to commissioners that they should expect to see an “extremely high cost estimate” for the new juvenile center due to the rising cost of commercial construction. The design plans will come first to the board’s administration committee and then to the full board in coming weeks. 

Dissette also asked commissioners to consider what they think the next step should be after the juvenile center project is done. Commissioners have long talked about establishing a “county campus” on the Napier land and having it also home to a new jail and courthouse besides other county departments. 

Dissette noted that the costs of maintaining the current jail continue to go up. He asked commissioners to be prepared to discuss whether the county keeps pouring money into the jail or build a new one. He pointed out that other counties are having similar discussions. 

“Before we start going through all the maintenance work needed, I want the board to offer guidance,” he said. “Should we start talking about having pursuing the campus idea or hold off for a little while? … Once we start looking at the juvenile center, does it make sense to have the jail or other buildings adjacent?” 

He said that while cost estimates for maintaining current county facilities were put at $15.8 million two years ago, cost estimates have tripled since then. He noted that construction costs that were at $200 a square foot a year or so ago are $600 a square foot now. “We can do one-third of the work presented to the board then,” he said. 

Commissioners seemed torn about which direction to go. While they recognized that they have been talking about a county campus concept for 20 years or more, they realize that it will be costly and require much more money to do than what they’d be able to get in state or federal grants. 

“I agree we have to look at it,” Commissioner Jon Hinkelman said. “But we have to be cognizant of the fact that we have only so many dollars, we have to be mindful of that. I would like to know how much it will cost to investigate. Once it’s done, the money can’t be unspent.” 

“Like (former commissioner) Kenny Wendzel said, if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it,” he added. “I don’t know what people have an appetite for. Keep in mind we have only so many dollars at the end of the day … It won’t hurt to look, but the numbers can be quickly outdated.” 

County Board Chairman McKinley Elliott noted that it would require a bonded debt for the county to undertake building a new jail and/or courthouse. “It would be the biggest public works project we’ve ever done by a magnitude of 10,” he said. 

Thursday’s county board meetings also featured discussion of ongoing broadband efforts.  

Dissette and County Commissioner Teri Freehling reported on the status of state grant opportunities. The state’s latest grant opportunity is “Realizing Opportunity with Broadband Infrastructure Networks” or ROBIN and will be available to internet service providers. The application deadline for the ROBIN grants is March 13. 

Dissette and Freehling said they’re working with five or six internet service providers interested in applying for grants to bring broadband to areas of the county. A roundtable discussion Zoom meeting has been set for next Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 1:30 p.m. to hear from both providers and area township leaders. 

Townships as well as the county itself will be asked to provide local funding to match any ROBIN grants received. For townships, that means pledging to use their American Rescue Plan Act funds. For the county, it means using the rest of the $4.5 million the county board set aside for broadband expansion. 

Freehling noted that the county has 11,500 homes or parcels not served by broadband and want to see how many can be reached through the ROBIN grant program.  

Besides the ROBIN grant program, the state will also be awarding grants through the Michigan High-Speed Internet program. An estimated $1.6 billion will be awarded in that program. 

Commissioners also discussed when and where to hold county board night meetings this year and informally agreed on four. Dates and locations have not been decided yet but the night meetings in past years have been held once a month May through September.