ST. CLOUD – Stearns County officials recently hired a Minnesota company to manage construction at its planned justice center — and agreed in December to pay $4 million for an architect.

But officials still haven't decided where it will be or even how many buildings it will be. Nor do officials know how much it will ultimately cost and how it will pay for it, though the county is hoping voters step up and approve a ballot question this November.

"The board really must make that decision in the next few months," said Mike Williams, county administrator. "We want to be able to tell the community what we're going to build and where."

Last spring, the Legislature granted the county authority to ask voters to approve a new three-eighths-of-a-cent sales tax that would collect up to $325 million for a new jail, sheriff's office and courthouse.

The so-called justice center could be built downtown or on undeveloped land elsewhere in the city, or facilities could be split between two sites. A breakdown of costs for each option should help commissioners decide, Williams said.

Officials and commissioners met with the consultants in mid-February and plan to meet again in mid-March; they must approve the ballot language in July.

County leaders have known the current downtown jail was cramped and nearing the end of its useful life for more than a decade. But hefty replacement-cost estimates and indecision over location spurred leaders to spend $5 million on a temporary fix, which bought leaders time to plan for a longer-term solution.

"We need to propose something that the public can support," Williams said. "I don't want to ignore that this is going to be an expensive project. Even though it will hopefully be paid for with sales tax, that doesn't mean we're going to build things we don't need."

At the jail, the inmate population continues to swell above capacity, forcing the county to pay to house inmates in other facilities, which is costly and inefficient, Williams said.

"At some point, we could get told by the Department of Corrections that our facility is so far out of date [that] they could take away our license to operate," Williams said.

Officials are looking to build a one-story jail because it cuts down on operational costs. But building it downtown at the current jail site would require significantly more space, including the nearby blocks with Howie's Sports Bar & Grill and the U.S. Post Office. That would take more time and money compared to building at a new undeveloped site.

"If we're downtown, we're going to eat up several properties," Williams said.

That's something St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, who has been leading a campaign to reinvigorate downtown, is not in favor of. He recently said he doesn't want the county to take a significant amount of property off the tax roll and is advocating for the county to keep the court facilities and administration building downtown and build a new jail at a different site.

"The jail doesn't create any vibrancy downtown," Kleis said.

But other officials think the facilities shouldn't be split. "We need to be built with the jail. It is of primary importance to our court system and all of the judges," said Stearns County Judge Sarah Hennesy, who is also chief judge of the Seventh Judicial District, at the mid-February meeting.

Hennesy said the county currently has enough judges to cover the caseload but will need more judges as the population continues to grow.

"If you don't give me a building to house those judges, the state won't give me those judges," she said.

Stearns County Judge Andrew Pearson shared concerns about the safety of judges, attorneys and other staff at the current facilities due to antiquated designs that don't allow for separate entrances, hallways and parking spaces for staff.

"Multiple times a year people threaten my life — multiple times — and I don't have a safe way of getting to my car. Period," Pearson said. "They know where you park. They know where your courtroom is. They know you have to walk by them."

Consultants estimate a split facility would cost the county a minimum of $27 million in new operational costs over 30 years — and that would be paid for using property taxes. The cost of construction on a new facility could be paid for entirely with sales tax dollars, which helps alleviate the tax burden on property owners with estimates that half the tax would come from people living outside the community, said Williams.

If the facilities moved from downtown, officials would need to determine how to repurpose that space. Williams said a previous analysis recommended tearing down the existing sheriff's office and court facilities building and selling the land. That would not include the historic courthouse, which just celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Once commissioners finalize plans — hopefully by May — they will begin a campaign to educate residents about the project and the different ways it could be funded.

"The five of us are the only ones who get to vote on property taxes so we're giving [residents] an opportunity to spread this out a whole lot more," said Tarryl Clark, board chair, about the proposed sales tax. "Regardless of how we ask the question, they need to know that this is something that needs to be done."