Proposition For New Jail Stirs Community Passion

Judy Kramer
County Reporter
Close to 40 people attended the latest town hall meeting on the new jail, March 22 at Lincoln High School. The gathering included Benton County Commissioners, members of the Jail Committee, Sheriff’s Office personnel, representatives from HMN Architects and L. J. Hart & Co., and interested members of the community.
Presiding Commissioner Michelle Kreisler hosted the meeting, and explained that the current plan for a new jail is a result of valued recommendations from the community and Sheriff’s office, as well as input from HMN Architects, and L.J. Hart & Co. (financial structure). She said there are two major revisions from the jail plan that was voted down in 2016. First is a reduction in cost from the previous $12.5 million to the current plan for $10 million.  The site of the new jail has also been changed from the square in Warsaw to 620 E. Main, just down the road from Salon 86 and Warsaw Chiropractic. There were two possible options for the new location, and the one chosen on Main Street held the advantage of saving money on sewage and water.
The interior/exterior of the planned facility was displayed in a video presentation at the meeting. Sheriff Eric Knox discussed details of the different parts of the building, noting that there would be “no meat on the bone,” just what is necessary to keep detainees and employees safe. The building is state of the art, turnkey, and has a fire suppression system. It will have room for all those being held plus room for expansion within the building, in the future. Sheriff Knox said that this is important to make sure that our investment will last 50 to 100 years.  He gave an example of another county that built a jail to take care of its current population, and didn’t plan on expansion at a later time. Five years later, another bond issue had to be passed to add on to that fairly new building. 
There will be many additions to what is currently available in the old jail, including a large kitchen, meeting room, and evidence room, plus more offices, report writing areas and interviewing spaces. It will be possible to use the meeting room weekly for hearings, as well as training sessions. There will also be a medical space, where outside medical personnel may be able to treat detainees in the future.
The addition of a recreation area where detainees can exercise and get fresh air from grated windows high on one wall, eliminates the need for an outdoor recreation space with razor wire. A sally port is available so that detainees can be securely transported into the building and be released from a locked vehicle when the outside doors to the building have been closed. A control room, manned by an employee around the clock, seven days a week, will have a view of all areas and can lock and unlock doors when and where needed. 
Sheriff Knox stressed the importance of having the ability to segregate violent criminals from less dangerous ones in the new facility.  There will be two-bed pods for the more violent offenders, and a dorm setting for others. Currently, there is only room for 20 males and 8 females in the jail and no place to segregate the violent offenders and those accused of lesser crimes. 
Overcrowding at the current jail reached a high point in 2016 of 58 detainees, and 41 in 2017. Those who cannot be housed have to be taken to out-of-county jails at a cost of $40 to $50 each, per day, plus the cost of transportation. Deputies often have to take time away from patrolling in order to transport prisoners.
“We currently have no facilities for pregnant women, and we had to remove three regular detainees in the past to make room for one with mental issues,” said Knox. “We also cannot put those accused of civil violations in with the rest of the jail population. The new jail will have housing for 80 with expansion possible to 100, ensuring that there is space for segregation as needed.”
 Knox said that there has been little growth in Benton County since 2007, and it is expected that growth in the future will be slow. Therefore, there should be enough space in the new jail to carry us forward for many years.
One of the questions for Sheriff Knox at the end of the video presentation concerned the possibility of paying off the cost of the new facility early. The sheriff replied that it might be possible to lease as many as 20 beds to other counties and bring in extra funds to be used for that purpose. Another question was asked about what would happen if the current jail was closed down before a new one could be built. Knox said that detainees would have to be housed out of county, but Benton County would still have to have a facility of some kind to house detainees during their court dates.
Funding for the new jail is dependent on passage of Benton County Proposition 1. Voters will be asked to impose a county-wide sales tax in the amount of one-half of one percent for a period of 21 years from the date on which such tax is first imposed for the purpose of operations and paying for the construction of a new jail for detention facilities and administrative office space for the County Sheriff’s operations. According to research performed by L. J. Hart and Co. on Benton County sale taxes, more than half of these taxes are and would be paid by tourists.
Larry J. Hart said that if Proposition 1 is passed, his company would offer bonds in $5,000 increments to local banks and investors before going elsewhere. Interest on these bonds would be exempt from state and federal income tax. He offered information about the cost of building a new jail now compared to the cost of building one a few years in the future. 
“In a few years time, construction costs will probably rise as well as interest rates, and the price tag for the same style facility would be more expensive,” said Hart.