Viewpoint: Answers on jail plan?

Winnebago County Board members have said they may ask county voters in November to decide whether to build a new county jail. The plan calls for an expenditure estimated at $130 million, financed by a proposed one percent hike in the sales tax.

The problem is, we don’t have enough information to make an informed decision.

In return for $130 million, we would get a 1,200-bed facility which presumably would solve overcrowding problems in the jail for the foreseeable future. The present jail can accommodate 173 inmates, but has been stuffed with more than 500 prisoners. Overcrowding has been a fact of life there for more than a decade.

But there are many unanswered questions concerning this proposal. Would we really be getting our money’s worth? St. Louis County, Mo. spent less money and got more beds and more space. Their eight-story Justice Center has 1,232 beds and some 500,000 square feet of space. It was finished in January 1998.

Some county officials took a look at that facility but rejected the idea of a high-rise jail downtown. They say a spread-out design is better and more fully complies with federal , state and the War on Terrorism guidelines. Perhaps so, but a spread-out building costs more to heat and cool than a vertical structure, and presents more security concerns.

Besides that, the design is horrid. The place looks like a huge shirt box covering four city blocks. More box architecture, just what we need to go with our lovely Public Safety Building.

Attorney Larry Morrissey serves on a county board subcommittee charged with obtaining public input on this issue. He voted against the jail plan when it came before county officials.

He said his group was not included in the visits to other jails.

“There were supposed to be public hearings beginning in March and more in May. None were held,” Morrissey said. He said repeated correspondence with the appropriate county officials drew no response and little information. “The subcommittee never had the chance to review the design,” he said. “I didn’t feel comfortable voting for the plan. We didn’t even know the price tag. It turned out to be double the original estimate. I have a ton of questions. Why is it so expensive? Without answers, how can I support it?”

Morrissey said the community will have to decide if it is willing to tax itself. The county must decide by the end of August if it will put the question on the Nov. 5 ballot. Morrissey said without more open discussion, the voters will lack the confidence and information necessary to make the right decision. He noted that whatever is decided, we will have to live with it for years to come.

“I’m not nuts about the design,” Morrissey said. “If we’re asking people to vote, and they only have one option, and they don’t like it, guess what they’re going to say. It can’t be the solution of only a handful of people. We’re not solving a lot of the root problems. We’re still putting Band-Aids on them,” he said.

He said there are questions about the proposed changes to traffic flow through the downtown district: The county wants to close off Elm Street. What will be the effect of that move? What about parking? How will all this mesh with the planned new federal courthouse?

Maybe downtown is not the best location for a new jail. How do we know?

One downtown businessman, who declined to be identified, is unhappy with the entire proposal. “I think going one full percent (sales tax) on a $130 million project is kind of extravagant,” he said. “One really disconcerting point is they are talking a 1,200-bed facility with offices and other things. Do you know how much office space is available downtown? I think they are floating a trial balloon,” he added.

He said one thing that bothers him is that there is only one design. “Where is the $60 million plan? Where is the $30 million plan?,” he asked. “You don’t do business that way.”

What bothers him the most, however, is what he sees as a negative effect on other projects and plans for revitalizing the core of the city. “We’re finally at the point where we’re maybe bringing Metra (commuter rail) to Rockford. The only way to do that is through sales tax. If we do the jail, you can kiss Metra goodbye. It is far more important to this area than a jail.

“We’re finally at the point where we’ve got the clout, and we’re going to spend our money before the good stuff is available. It’s a huge decision. We need public input. One percent is huge. It will leave us high and dry. I feel intimidated. They’re not spending our money wisely,” he said.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli noted that support programs are vital to the future success of any new jail. Morrissey agrees they are important. “Some of them are out there,” he said, “but they are not well funded.”

What are some of the root causes of jail overcrowding? Is the answer just “crime”? Morrissey said studies have shown 80 percent of those in the county jail are awaiting trial. The system recycles a large number of people; that’s called recidivism. What is our recidivism rate? Morrissey said it is at least as high as the state and national averages and may be higher than the state average.

Do we really need more courtrooms, or do we need more prosecutors and support staff? Morrissey noted that of the total cost of the jail project, a majority of the increase will be for staffing. He asked: “Are we in line with other communities (on this project)?”

He added: “They haven’t answered the questions to my satisfaction at this point.”

Others have brought up the possibility of this being a backdoor fund for Perryville Road. What if the building does cost less than $130 million? But we have given them a one percent raise in the sales tax. Excess money could be put into any project the county pleases.

Furthermore, besides killing Metra, what will this tax increase do to money needed by the city, the park district and the library? They are being really quiet right now, but the word is that each will ask for a tax increase in the April elections. What do you want to spend your money on—a sprawling jail—or real services?

Other options have not been explored. The city now owns the Lincoln Hotel, right next to the satellite jail. We could expand into that structure. Other counties have extra beds; what about shipping some prisioners to them at less cost than construction? What about having judges work eight hours a day and clear out the backlog in the jail? More questions than answers exist on this question; and once again, we are told we must act now! The old saying goes, “Your lack of planning is not my crisis.” The same goes for lack of communication. Getting another tax rammed down our throat under the threat of a federal lawsuit sure sounds familiar.

Time out. Let’s talk and look at some questions. Let’s think and come up with some alternatives.

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