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Economic Elbow Room: County aims for cost savings in jail expansion

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On a dreary February day, the inmates were cluttered inside the stainless-steel trailers. Welded together, the large structure situated behind the Greene County Justice Center makes a rectangular shape with a central courtyard capped with barbed wire. Because of the cold – all 98 inmates couldn’t go into the temporary jail’s courtyard, making it chaotic as they sat on the edges of bunks and tried to move in the long hallways.

This is just one portion of the jail, which is also the largest “hotel” in the Queen City, run by Capts. David Johnson and Jeff Coonrod. Within the facility at 1000 Booneville Ave., the captains also oversee a restaurant, laundromat and in-patient psychiatric clinic. The Greene County jail is an unconventional business, but a business nonetheless that is like a small city – and it’s no secret that it’s bursting at the seams.

According to a study conducted last month by independent jail consultant Bill Garnos, the total average daily population has swelled to 813 in 2017 from 454 in 2010. In his initial study in August 2017, Garnos said the jail size would need to triple in 20 years to accommodate anticipated inmates. Although this type of increase is not an option financially, the Greene County Sheriff’s Office is making plans to begin an expansion across the street, with room to expand. According to the Greene County assessor’s office, the property to the west of the Justice Center at 330 W. Scott St. is 3.7 acres and owned by the county.

Voters approved a half-cent general revenue sales tax in November 2017. Not including interest payment and bonds, the jail expansion will cost about $59 million, Greene County Presiding Commissioner Bob Cirtin said. County officials estimated the tax will generate $25.5 million annually for the jail.

Three months after the vote, the county is in the process of reviewing requests for quotation for the project with a completion date three years from now.

Design dependent
Building across the street will save the county about $20 million, Cirtin said, because the new jail will not be attached to the current concrete facility and can be constructed with different materials.

“We’re mainly looking at more steel than concrete. This building is out of solid concrete and you have a weight issue, so can only go so many stories,” Sheriff Jim Arnott added. “The other building, using mainly steel, it’s like a high rise and it’s at a cheaper cost.”

The buildings will be connected via a skywalk and the sheriff’s office will be moved to the new facility.

Designing the jail facility will take about 11 months, Arnott said. Square footage is uncertain until an architect is selected, which County Purchasing Director Chris Mericle said should occur by about mid-March. There are currently eight requests for quotations being evaluated for recommendation to the commission: Bates Architects and Goldberg Group Architects PC; Buxton Kubik Dodd Creative and Dewberry; Chiodini Architects and Elevates; DLR Group Inc. and Dake Wells Architecture; HMN Architects Inc.; HOK and Paragon Architecture LLC; nForm Architecture LLC and TreanorHL PC; and Oke-Thomas + Associates Inc.

Until an architect is selected, bed count is unknown – although Arnott estimates it could be 2,047. The jail currently has 709 beds including the temporary jail.

“We believe it needs to be larger than that, but we have to use the money that we have,” Arnott said.

The Builders’ Association Office Manager Miles Boyer said it’s difficult to determine the economic impact of the project yet because of its early stage.

“It’s really hard to put any sort of number on that,” he said. “The more construction work goes on in the area, the better for the economy. It keeps people working.”

The new jail will provide up to 250 more jobs for corrections officers – nearly doubling the current 350 sheriff’s office employees.

Adjacent to the new jail, an operations building also is being constructed. The project will be designed by nForm Architecture LLC and is estimated to cost $5 million, Mericle said. Payment to the firm would be calculated as a percentage of cost. Mericle declined to disclose the percentage. NForm Architecture provided the information from the working contract, which says 5.5 percent of the cost will be paid to the firm.

The firm’s principal and architect Jennifer Wilson is named in former county spokeswoman Trysta Herzog’s complaint filed with the state auditor alleging misuse of public resources leading up to the success of the tax ballot item.

Herzog said in the complaint that Wilson in October 2017 dropped off a check to the Invest in Greene County PAC, which supported the tax. The complaint does not indicate the check amount.

Most jail pods – segregated areas based on degrees of crime severity – consist of separate cells and a communal area with a recreation room. However, some pods are dormitory format, where sometimes 55 inmates are housed in rows of bunks. There are nine pods total, only two of which are female.

On Feb. 1, there were 772 inmates in the jail. Annually, about 19,000 inmates are booked, though many of those circulate through quickly. To accommodate the growing number, Johnson said sometimes the jail uses kayak beds – large plastic sleds on the floor with bedding. The overcrowding spurred the Greene County Commission to enter an agreement in August 2017 with Seymour-based All Detainment Solutions to use temporary jail structures. The county agreed to annually pay $873,153 for at least two years to lease the trailers.

The temporary facility can house 108 beds, and Johnson said he is unsure if the jail will have to utilize more trailers before the expansion is completed – or where they would put the trailers. Inmates in the temporary jail cost the county $47 per day and the facility is always filled to capacity, Arnott said.

In 2015, Arnott sent a letter to the city saying the jail would not accept municipal prisoners because of overcrowding. The issue spawned litigation filed by the city against the county over violations of a jail housing agreement. All parties reached an agreement with Vernon County Commission in November 2016 to transport municipal inmates to Vernon County.

Johnson said those inmates are kept for a short period of time in a holding cell in Greene County before being transported. Housing an inmate out of county costs about $53 per day, Arnott said – including transport and medical care.

Once the new jail is constructed, he does not expect the need for either the temporary jail or out-of-county housing.

Show me the money
The jail also houses state and federal inmates. On Feb. 1, there were 150 federal inmates in the jail. The county gets paid about $62 a day to house those inmates, making a slight profit. The state, however, is supposed to pay $22.58 – but it’s past due on payments to the tune of about $1.8 million.

“It’s like backed child support; it’d be nice when we see it, but we’re not expecting it. That’s something we legitimately tell our senator and state representatives all the time that we need that money to operate,” Arnott said, adding the reimbursement rate has only gone up 8 cents since 1997. “I’m mandated to take a state prisoner whether I have room or not. If I don’t, that’s a violation of the law and I could be arrested.”

Although specialized court programs – like drug or veterans court – help stop the cycle of criminal behavior, such programs don’t make a dent in inmate population, Arnott said. Pretrial services, however, Administrative Capt. Royce Denny said, does reduce inmates. The program monitors released nonviolent, lower-risk offenders. There are approximately 200 offenders in this program, about a dozen of whom have ankle bracelets, which cost the county about $12 each per day.

The sheriff’s office uses The Great Game of Business open-book management plan. This way, Arnott said, everyone has a say in appropriating the budget – about $22.6 million in 2018 – and can contribute ideas.

Inmate average daily population has seen a steady increase by roughly 50 per year, according to the survey by Garnos. By the time the new jail is ready for inmates, the population is estimated to exceed 900 and increase by 50 each year, Arnott said. Looking ahead, strategic savings will continue to hold importance for the jail.

“We’ve got to build for the future, but we can only build for what we can afford,” he said. “It’s going to be a big project and it’s not just going to end. We have not solved our jail issue. We have prolonged it and then eventually, we’ll have to add on.”


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