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ST. CLOUD — After months of discussions on where Stearns County should build a new jail facility — and what services the facility should include — county board members finally pinned down where the new so-called "justice center" will be. Sort of.

County Board members Friday voted to move the county facilities out of downtown — where the jail, sheriff's office and courtrooms have been for decades — to a new vacant site. The specific location is still unknown, but with Friday's vote, county staff can begin looking.

On Tuesday, commissioners started talking about how to word the ballot question that will appear on November's ballot.

"I want to be as transparent as we can be," Commissioner Jeff Bertram said at the meeting.

County leaders have known the current downtown jail was cramped and nearing the end of its useful life for more than a decade. And for many years, the county has been paying to house inmates in other facilities because the jail is over capacity, according to County Administrator Mike Williams.

But hefty replacement cost estimates and indecision over location spurred leaders to spend $5 million on a temporary fix, which bought them time to plan for a long-term solution.

Last year, 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. And for the past several months, commissioners have debated whether to rebuild facilities downtown, on undeveloped land elsewhere in the city, or split facilities between the two sites.

Officials plan to build a one-story jail because it cuts down on operation costs. But building it downtown would have required significantly more space that its current footprint and required the relocation of the U.S. Post Office, which would have taken more time and money compared to building a new facility at a new site.

Justice center plans approved Friday include a 270-bed jail, law enforcement center, county attorney's office, community corrections/probation offices and 14 courtrooms. Commissioners have said they hope the final price tag is below the $325 million approved by the Legislature.

"We will build something that's flexible, but we won't go back to residents with a levy," said Board Chair Tarryl Clark. "If bids come in too high, we can scale back."

If the referendum fails, the commissioners would either need to go back to the Legislature for another sales tax ballot question or commit to paying for a facility with property tax dollars.

Stearns County Auditor-Treasurer Randy Schreifels told commissioners Tuesday paying for a $325 million facility without sales tax dollars would increase the annual levy by about 19%. That would end up costing the owner of an average-priced house about $187 per year, whereas the proposed sales tax is estimated to cost residents about $34 per year.

"It is a better deal for the property tax owners to have a sales tax," Schreifels said.

The commissioners need to vote on the ballot language before the end of July. If the referendum passes this fall, the county could begin collecting the sales tax in April.