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Column: A dispassionate examination of a new county government location

By Dan Kontos

There is much that has been said about the location of a new county government location, which would include a courthouse, sheriff’s office, jail, and eventually the bulk of county government that would coalesce there as well, to improve efficiencies.




Unfortunately, a great deal of this discussion becomes mired in myopic arguments, often invented out of the thinnest of reasoning, that obscures a clear path to achieving a goal. The results are continuing to pour precious tax dollars into maintaining a campus that has outlived its usefulness, is inadequate, and lacks modern safety characteristics that help keep visitors, staff, and even inmates safe.

I would like to take this opportunity to clear away the dead brush that has encroached upon this debate and see if we can clear a path to a dispassionate examination of a way forward, all without rehashing too much of what has already been said.

In discussions like this, it is often useful to lay out what that main crux of the matter seems to be, and delineate the areas that both sides can agree on. This sets aside arguing about what does not need to be debated, and allows for more time to focus on a logical conclusion. While it is true that all decisions are not ultimately based on logic, especially in governmental circles, let’s give that a try anyway.

For the sake of details, let’s simply refer to the question as determining the location of a new government facility for the county. This is what Portage County has found as a convenient label, and for the sake of simplicity, I will adopt that as well for this column. Understand that this project will more than likely be divided into phases for construction, cost, and continuity of services sake – no matter what the ultimate decision is.

The choice boils down to two options identified as being the main contenders for selection. We will refer to them by the familiar terms of the downtown option and the green space option. If you are not familiar with the details of each, I highly recommend some research on your part. You can begin here.

What most informed discussion participants can agree on are the following points. I abhor the constant need to be relinquished from responsibility by repetitively listing possible exceptions to generalities, so forgive me if I minimize that. I know that there will always be those who cannot even accept the premise that the rest of the community generally agrees on, but I find these scoffers to be contrarian by nature, or ignorant in the true sense of the term.

It is an accepted fact that the current county facilities, namely the courthouse, jail, and law enforcement center, are inadequate for the county’s needs. We have grown as a county since the courthouse was built in 1957, and the current law enforcement center, comprising the sheriff’s office, communications center, jail, and juvenile detention facility, was inadequately designed when it was imprudently built in 1990. As for the jail, et al., one architect noted that it was a building constructed in the 20th century based on an 18th century design.

It is also an accepted fact that the courthouse, county offices, and law enforcement center do not meet current safety standards. This is especially true in the courts, where the public, witnesses, juries, defendants, and staff all intermingle in the same circulation paths, and where weapons screening for the courts is part-time and permeable.

It is another accepted fact that the current facilities are not capable of being reasonably remodeled, and that the costs of maintaining what we currently have are prohibitive, say $10 million just for immediate essentials, which really fixes nothing. County Board Chair Al Haga has been quoted saying, “We’re at the point now where doing nothing is not an option.” Yet, today, we have done nothing. On top of that, the city is actively opposing even minor fixes to security, for reasons of their own.

Another sad fact is that we are continuing to spend money on inaction. The county has spent literally millions of dollars on studies, prisoner transportation and housing, land purchases, lost opportunities, and inefficient maintenance. The county executive even stated that inaction is costing taxpayers roughly $26,000 per day.

So, if we agree something must be done, what is the right choice? Is it downtown or green space?

As far as the green space option, the professionals hired (at great cost to the taxpayers) tell us, over and over, that this path would be less expensive, allow for greater future expansion, faster to complete, and service the county better. All three major law enforcement agencies in Portage County agree.

Conversely using simple logic, this makes the downtown site more expensive, more constrained, slower to build, and more dangerous to people who live there. It’s that simple. However, are there other factors that make up for these indisputable details?

The biggest public argument is that the construction of a new campus in the downtown location would support downtown businesses. That’s an interesting argument, as the current courthouse (including city hall) and law enforcement center are not really in the downtown area now. They are actually in a residential area of the city. They are in a “R-5” Multiple Family II Residence District. That doesn’t sound too safe to me, and our law enforcement agencies agree.

OK, but what about a new downtown location, some 500 feet across the street? Take it from someone who worked out of the current county campus for over 24 years, very few county employees went downtown to the few restaurants that were open for lunch. Most of the downtown businesses are not even restaurants. How do the rest of the shop owners profit? People spend their short lunch periods going to eat, if they eat out, where they want, not by what’s “close.”

By the way, why were the 50 some-odd city employees allowed to move out of the “downtown” if this was such a critical issue? On top of that, if I’m wrong, if the county employees are critical to business in the vicinity, aren’t there other businesses in Stevens Point, other than downtown? Why are they not considered?

It must be something else. I know, what if some local businesses and landlords have made their living being in the immediate vicinity of the current courthouse? True enough, and point stipulated. I just wonder why these few interests are allowed to hold the rest of the county captive on this issue? 

Some would argue that the downtown is really the solution to making Portage County a first-rate county. I think that the majority of the citizens would disagree with that. Isn’t that land near an unrealized prime waterfront district, ready to be commercially developed into an actual improvement that can make Stevens Point a first-rate city, add to the tax rolls (reducing the burden to taxpayers), and make a visionary improvement to the community and residences in that area?

Now a frustrated sheriff is pushing to build a new law enforcement center on a green site as a standalone project, free from the constraints of building within the city limits. An interesting concept that we can look at next.

I salute the county board supervisors who see this, and that’s most of you. Keep fighting the good fight, and battle on for the logical choice on our behalf.

So, with that, let’s meet in the opinion section to talk about all of it, boldly, honestly, logically, and with a healthy respect for each other. Until then, God bless.