Up the hill from heavily visited lakeside attractions in Grand Marais, Minn., sits a landmark that doesn’t make must-see lists: Cook County’s 111-year-old courthouse with its cream-colored brick façade, towering Greek columns and an early 1900s jail building behind it.
The holding cell is no longer in use. But there are still trials in the courthouse, and other Cook County government offices are wedged into every available inch.
“We certainly hope that if people are coming to Cook County to visit that they’re not planning to become involved in the court system,” County Administrator James Joerke said on a tour of the building last week. “But this is really essential to the functioning of this community.”
He said the courthouse has seen far better days. It’s drafty in the long, cold winters. County social work staff are crammed so tight they sometimes have to vacate their desks so colleagues can make sensitive calls to area residents. The lone courtroom — with windows offering sweeping views of Lake Superior — has shortcomings, too.
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“It’s a beautiful courtroom,” said Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen. “But it is a nightmare to provide adequate security.”
That would change if Cook County can convince state lawmakers to put up about half of the anticipated $17.4 million needed for renovation of the building and the current sheriff’s department and much-younger jail facility a mile away. The Law Enforcement Center has its own limitations, including inadequate space to process and store criminal evidence.
But how much of the proposed renovations move past the drawing board hinges on how the project fares in competition with a mountain of requests from around Minnesota.
The nearly $9 million that Cook County wants for its top project is just a speck of the billions in requests that have come in so far — six months ahead of a legislative session where the public works construction bill will take center stage.
After Minnesota lawmakers this year approved a $2.6 billion capital investment package — the largest in the state’s history — local governments and state agencies have submitted more than $7.4 billion in requests for projects that could receive consideration when the 2024 Legislature convenes.
The project descriptions delivered to the state run more than 2,200 pages alone.
Starting this week, Senate Capital Investment Chair Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and other members of her committee will set out across the state to visit the communities that made the requests. And she has a message that some might not like.
“I want to help them out. But I really need to actually lower expectations,” Pappas said. “I don’t believe we’ll have the kind of cash that we had last year toward a bonding bill.”
Lawmakers were able to make a dent in the vast pile of project requests earlier this year with the capital investment package — part borrowing, part cash — that cleared the Legislature. And Pappas said that opened the floodgates for local governments putting in asks for roads, bridges, parks, sewers and other repairs.
Now, she’ll set tougher parameters for getting project funding. Pappas suggested local communities would have to put up 50 percent of their funding or more and be ready or nearly ready to break ground when funding comes through. Plus, lawmakers will be asked to prioritize projects in their districts since it’s unlikely that they’ll all get authorized.
“I want to be enthusiastic and encouraging,” Pappas said. “But on the other hand, I do feel like I’m not sure how much we’re going to be able to do.”
Bipartisan buy-in needed to bond
Capital investment bills are known as bonding bills at the Capitol. They’re unique because they require buy-in from both parties. Sixty percent of each chamber has to vote to allow the state to take on debt to fund the projects.
The Cook County courthouse project is the type that could fare better because of the political math. The area is represented by Republican Roger Skraba of Ely in the House — he voted for the 2023 package — and DFLer Grant Hauschild of Hermantown in the Senate.
Joerke said he’s had initial conversations with both and described them as “generally supportive.”
“I do hope that they’ll come and visit and look at some of the needs that we’re describing in the application so they can see firsthand what the issues are and the problems that we need to solve,” he said.
Hauschild said it’s on his radar.
“The Iron Range and the Northland almost have an expectation that we do bonding bills, that we support bonding bills, regardless of your politics,” Hasuchild said. “Getting infrastructure funding is part of the expectation.”
But even Hauschild acknowledged that winnowing could get difficult. He said he’s been approached about more than $100 million in requests from communities in his expansive district.
Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, is her party’s lead lawmaker on the Capital Investment Committee. She echoed Pappas and said some communities will have to lower their expectations. Housley said after lawmakers approved that hefty package this year, they should be a little more selective about what makes it into a 2024 plan.
“It feels like we took care of the backlog and everything that was clogged up there that were needs,” Housley said. “So I don’t know what’s going to be coming forward in truly, truly strong needs for public safety and infrastructure.”
And Democrats should shoot for a lower price tag, Housley said.
“These need to be real critical issues that need money right now for if you’re going to get Republican votes to bond for them.”
Clearing the backlog
Rep. Fue Lee, chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, said the needs that local governments have put forward are real. And another big bonding bill would be needed to address them.
“At the end of the day, you know, the requests that we have seen have ballooned,” Lee, the Minneapolis DFLer, said. “And the queue is going to continue to get longer and bigger.”
Pappas agreed that the long list of requests suggested a growing need for capital investment spending around the state. And she said that asset preservation would be high on her list of priorities for 2024.
She also said that lawmakers wouldn’t write out proposals right away just because they weren’t focused on a certain kind of infrastructure project.
“One person’s wants are another person’s needs,” Pappas said. “Local communities can decide if they want to build a loon center because they think it will help with economic development. Or if they feel like a health and wellness center is what they need for their community, or they need a new park or library or playground, that really is essential.”
Lawmakers will have to wait until November to get a better sense of how much the state can afford to spend on local projects. That’s when they’ll get an update on the state’s budget and economic outlook.
But before that, capital investment committees will head out on regional tours to visit sites where local communities, universities and colleges, and state agencies have pitched projects.
“We want to make sure that any investment that we have made in the past or are considering making are going to, you know, help them thrive and move Minnesota forward,” Lee said.
DFL leaders left about $1 billion in cash for capital investment at the end of the 2023 legislative session. Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said the money could be used for a cash-only capital investment bill if Republicans don’t agree with the bonding plan Democrats put together.
“So we’re prepared to move forward with a bonding bill if needed, but we would prefer to work with them,” Dziedzic said. “I think it just helps all of Minnesota.”
DFL Gov. Tim Walz will take the first crack at slimming the pile of capital requests in January when he presents his preferred capital investment plan. Lawmakers can take that as a starting point when they return to Saint Paul in February for their next session.
Back in Grand Marais, Joerke said the needs will be there even if the state money doesn’t come through.
Getting bypassed would leave county leaders to cobble together project financing in a place where the property tax base isn’t all that large.
“We are small and we are at the end of the road up here. But a lot of Minnesotans know Cook County, a lot of folks have vacation homes up here. And I think there’s a fondness for Cook County in the hearts of many Minnesotans,” Joerke said. “We haven’t really pursued this kind of funding before. We think there’s some really clear needs, and we hope that we’re going to be competitive.”