ST. CLOUD - Over a decade ago, Stearns County officials knew the jail was cramped and nearing the end of its useful life.

But hefty replacement cost estimates and indecision over location spurred commissioners to spend $5 million on a temporary fix — a remodel to add beds for inmates — which bought county leaders time to plan for a longer-term solution.

Now, as the inmate population continues to swell above capacity and maintenance crews struggle to find parts to replace aging equipment, commissioners agree it's time to build a new jail.

They're also considering building an entirely new justice center complex instead of just a jail. The new complex, with space for courtrooms and sheriff's office facilities, could remain downtown St. Cloud or move to another site in the city. But the potential price tag came as a surprise to some commissioners last week.

"The last couple years, we knew we'd be moving forward with plans for a jail. [It] had a price tag of under $100 million," said Joe Perske, chair of the Stearns County Board. "Now we're looking at the potential project for something well over $300 million. That creates a certain amount of sticker shock, I think, for everybody."

County Administrator Mike Williams last week presented a study that found the county law enforcement center, which houses the sheriff's office, jail and court facility, is operationally obsolete.

The jail has an operational capacity of 135 beds but the average daily population is 160 inmates. To meet demand, the county pays to house inmates in other facilities, which is costly and inefficient, Williams said.

The study estimates the county will need 270 beds by 2040 and is in need of immediate reconfigurations to allow for required housing separations and support programs. And the court facility will soon be in need of more courtrooms to meet demand.

"Everyone's not going to agree on everything but this has got to be done if you want us to continue to operate at the level we've been operating," said County Attorney Janelle Kendall.

A committee that studied the county's needs is recommending five options for a new justice center complex. Two of the options keep the campus downtown but would require the county to acquire businesses on the block that includes Howie's Sports Bar, which could extend the time frame of the project to upwards of six years. Projected cost estimates for the downtown facilities are between $285 million and $305 million.

Three of the options move the jail and court facilities out of downtown: a property on the west end of town that would require annexation, a site on the far south side of town near Interstate 94 and at the former Electrolux appliance manufacturing site in St. Cloud's Pantown neighborhood. That site would require demolition and likely environmental abatement. The cost for the alternate site complexes range from $270 million to $295 million.

Kendall said she doesn't care where the complex is located as long as the county keeps the jail and court facilities together. Because even though many hearings moved online during the pandemic, hearings for serious criminal cases are still held in person, she said.

"You only end up in jail after you've been through court," Kendall said. "These two things are inextricably intertwined."

Stearns County Sheriff Steve Soyka said he prefers one of the alternate sites because the downtown campus is hemmed in by businesses, railroad tracks and busy streets. An alternate site would allow the county to expand in the future if needed. It would also be cheaper and likely could be built faster than a downtown complex.

Mayor Dave Kleis, who recently launched a task force focused on reinvigorating downtown St. Cloud, said he's less concerned about whether the county facilities remain downtown than he is about the project timeline. He said he'd prefer the county to increase its jail capacity as soon as possible.

"If we have dangerous people on the street because there's no room, that is a public safety concern that needs to be rectified sooner[rather] than later," he said.

County leaders propose paying for the new complex with a new three-eights-of-a-cent sales tax. This session, the county is asking the Legislature for permission to bring a referendum to voters on allowing the county to collect up to $325 million for the justice center.

If voters approved, the sales tax rate for St. Cloud residents who live in Stearns County would be increased to 8%. That would be higher than the current sales tax for St. Cloud residents who live in Benton and Sherburne counties — 7.88% — but still less than other regional cities such as Rochester at 8.13% and Duluth at 8.88%.

Perske said he's not comfortable taking a $300 million-plus project to the voters right now because he doesn't think it would pass. Instead, he'd like commissioners to discuss possibly building the justice center in stages, with the jail first.

"We're going to have to go to the voters if we go with [the] sales tax," he said. "We've got to have something that they think makes sense and is a good value for their dollars."