McCOOK, Nebraska -- Red Willow County commissioners Monday morning declined to participate with the City of McCook on a new law enforcement facility.
"The city wants an answer by their (City Council) meeting Monday," said commission chairman Earl McNutt, but neither he nor fellow commissioner Steve Downer felt that gave them enough time to decide whether the county wants to place a jail in the new law enforcement facility proposed by the city.
"We're not prepared at this time to move forward," on a county jail like voters rejected in November 2006, McNutt said.
Commissioner Leigh Hoyt said he didn't feel he's had enough time or information to vote -- yes or no -- on Downer's motion not to cooperate with the county on a jail. "It's really premature to make a decision now," Hoyt said. "We need to sit down with the city."
No one from the city attended the commissioners' meeting Monday, which befuddled McNutt. McNutt said he attended a City Council meeting and a special meeting regarding the proposed law enforcement facility, but emphasized that while he has received a couple of e-mails from McCook Mayor Dennis Berry about the county cooperating on a project, he would have thought commissioners would get a formal request and more information or discussion, possibly at the meeting Monday morning.
Sheriff Gene Mahon said he's very concerned that the city may build a law enforcement/fire department facility without a jail or holding cells.
"If the city builds a facility with no jail, we're going to need more staff to haul (prisoners) 24/7," Mahon said, explaining that the county now uses the city's holding cells to house prisoners for at the longest 96 hours, or before transferring them for longer periods of time to jails in Trenton, Oberlin, Curtis, Lexington or Holdrege.
Mahon said he'd rather have a 15-bed facility than nothing. The election in 2006 proposed a 30-bed jail, but Mahon said Monday they could still haul overflow prisoners out-of-town if they had more than 15 prisoners.
Mahon said some days they have up to 20 prisoners, "but that's not the norm. Fifteen beds are better than what we've got now," he said. The county itself has no jail facility, but every prisoner -- whether arrested by city police or county sheriff or deputy -- is, by law, the responsibility of the county, which must provide/pay for incarceration.
McNutt mused, "We don't know now what it'd cost to run a jail. Hauling prisoners may be the cheapest way to go, even if it's not the safest."
The liability of transporting prisoners worries Mahon. "We've been hauling prisoners since 1983, and we haven't had any accidents and only one escape," he said, but he's concerned about county liability in the event of either incident.
Mahon said the need to transport prisoners would not be eliminated if the county took over operation of the city's 96-hour holding cells. "We wouldn't gain anything," Mahon said. "We'd still have to provide 24-hour staffing, and we'd still have to haul prisoners" who require incarceration beyond 96 hours.
Mahon said the property that the county owns north of the courthouse may be sufficient for a 15-bed facility, and then courthouse security wouldn't be as compromised as it would be if the sheriff's department moved into the city's former public safety center.
Neither property north of the courthouse was purchased specifically to build a jail onto or next door to the courthouse, McNutt said. "We don't know what courthouse expansion we may need in the future," he said. "The courthouse itself is in good shape; it's going to be here for a long time."