New Justice Center nearing need for expansion

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118235719027193.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Officials are already discussing the need for expansion of the new jail before inmates have even transferred in.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118235724527123.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Project Director Gary Burdett said construction contracts related to the new Justice Center total $124 million.‘);

With the county’s current jail population at 735 inmates, officials are already pushing the need to expand the new Winnebago County Justice Center, which is only staffed to handle 800.

Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) and Sheriff Richard Meyers (D) broke the news to board members June 14.

“We’re awful close to that 800,” Meyers reported.

Christiansen added, “We’re already approaching the ceiling, and we haven’t moved in yet, which should tell all of us that we’re gonna have to open more pods very soon.”

Each additional pod would house about 58 prisoners and requires five corrections officers. The estimated expense of running a pod is $310,000, but Christiansen noted rising utility rates have made it difficult to anticipate what the actual cost of running the 600,000-square-foot facility will be.

“That could swing a half-to-a-million dollars,” Christiansen warned. “If we’re not very careful on how we approach this, we could be having to look at digging in the General Fund just to keep that going.”

Christiansen said if the new jail is forced to expand to its 1,200 maximum capacity at a cost of $1.5 million: “I can tell you there’s no money left. That eats up that 1-cent.”

The chairman argued this reality should put to bed any myth of a bottomless pot of money known as the Jail Fund. The 1 percentage point public safety tax approved by voters in 2002 has been the subject of debate as construction of the new jail has drawn to a close.

According to Project Director Gary Burdett, the cost of construction contracts related to the new Justice Center is $124 million. The county has reportedly kept costs within 3.5 percent of original estimates.

During the November election season, Phil Johnson (D-8) led a Democratic push to reduce the jail tax by a quarter-percentage point. Republicans resisted. With new forebodings of jail overcrowding, taxpayers are not bound to see any relief in the Public Safety Tax anytime soon.

Christiansen indicated the County needs to start setting any surplus aside in anticipation of a growing jail population.

Meyers cited a report stating current incarceration rates equate to a need for 2,400 beds by 2020.

Christiansen pledged continued funding of alternative programs to combat jail overcrowding, in addition to speeding up the judicial system through the use of retired judges.

Fearing another jail overcrowding lawsuit, Christiansen urged, “Our culture has to change, or we’re gonna have this facility over here full, and we start wondering, ‘Now what are we gonna do?’”

While Meyers acknowledged the cost benefits of employing retired reserve officers, he was quick to point out, “There is a limit to the pool of retired officers that you can bring in to fill those positions.”

Between the new facility and the courthouse, Meyers said resources are spread thin.

“We’re pushing the envelope of being able to staff those,” Meyers said. “Sometime in the future, although we’ll try to avoid it, there may be some issues that we have to address.”

Doug Aurand (D-3) concurred with Meyers and agreed this is no time for a reduction of the jail tax.

“Better than a tax reduction would be to pay those bonds off early to save all that interest,” Aurand asserted. “We can’t afford to go into the General Fund. We need to be very responsible. To me, being responsible is taking care of the needs of our law enforcement.”

Jim Webster (R-2) made a point of indicating Christiansen had expressed the idea of paying down bonds to him months ago, adding the county needs to pay the building off early instead of finding new ways to spend the tax.

For now, it would appear any hope of reducing the 1 percentage point tax is lost as the board pledges to spend or sit on any surplus. Omens of jail overcrowding will likely justify the longevity of the “One Cent for Public Safety.”

from the June 20-26, 2007, issue

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