McCOOK, Nebraska -- Red Willow County's jail task force handed the final decision -- build a jail or continue transporting prisoners -- to county commissioners following a 2 1/2-hour task force meeting Wednesday evening.
Jail committee members have met since April and have, with planners from Prochaska & Associates, updated a jail study done in 2005-06 and toured new jails built since that time. They decided the best option for Red Willow County -- which has been without its own jail since 1983 -- is to build what they call "Option 1A."
Option 1A is a 24-bed (expandable to 36) jail with room for sheriff's offices. It is not attached to the courthouse or the existing sheriff's office, and leaves room for parking on the far north end. Construction costs are estimated at $5,105,830; annual payments would be about $340,000 a year for 20 years.
The commissioners' other option is to assume the operation of the 96-hour holding cells that will continue to be operated by the City of McCook until the city police department moves into the new municipal facility being built, without jail cells, on the former West Ward elementary school property in the 300 block of West Fourth/Fifth. As is the practice now, prisoners would be held for up to 96 hours and then transported by deputies to jails in Hitchcock, Frontier, Dawson or Phelps counties in Nebraska or Decatur County in Kansas.
In 2009-10, the city paid $461,171 for jail services with nine dispatcher/jailers plus administration, operations and maintenance. For the county, those operating costs would then be added to about $219,000 paid annually (an estimate of costs 2000-10) by the county for jail bed rental and prisoner transportation. This figure does not include deputies' wages and benefits.
"Either way, we're going to pay a lot of money," said commission chairman Earl McNutt.
Committee member Jim Arp told commissioners that after all the study, "it starts becoming a no-brainer. Option 1A is the most logical. My only reservation is on operating costs, and they're hard to nail down."
Operating costs for a new jail are still under investigation, but McNutt said the best indication of costs would be new jails in Cherry and Butler counties. "They're similar facilities," he said, and their operating costs are averaging $500,000 annually.
Cherry County's jail is operating with 12 jailers and one jail administrator.
Sheriff Gene Mahon is figuring a new jail in Red Willow County can operate with nine jailers and an administrator.
McNutt said he is leaning toward not having an election, but taking advantage of state statutes that would allow the county to levy up to 5.2 cent for capital construction. "Everyone knows that successful bond elections are very difficult," he said, explaining that Cherry County commissioners built that county's new jail without an election. "They (the Cherry County commissioners) educated the public the best they could," McNutt said. "We just need hard facts and numbers and go forward with it."
Pam Morello, warden for the State of Nebraska Department of Corrections Work Ethic Camp in McCook, told commissioners that educating the public involves overcoming the perception that a jail is built for criminals. "It's for public safety as well," she said, explaining that she and law enforcement officials take the responsibility of keeping the public safe very, very seriously. "Our first responsibility is to keep the residents safe," she said.
The jail would also be "for the safety of those who protect us every day," Morello said. "It's for families ... for kids walking to school ... for you barbecuing in your backyards."
Morello said too that the county has a responsibility to build a jail as inexpensively as it can, and be financially responsible to tax payers and the public.
McNutt said that "ultimately," the decision is on the shoulders of the commissioners.
"It's time for commissioners to make a decision," he said.