McCOOK, Nebraska -- A Red Willow County, Nebraska, taxpayer shared with county commissioners Monday morning his concerns and observations about the possibility of building a county jail, and doing it without a vote by county residents.
Another taxpayer, a rural McCook resident, told commissioners regarding a jail, "It's time to quit draggin' your feet." Her husband added, "We're going to have to have one."
During the commissioners' weekly meeting Monday, commission chairman Earl McNutt said the jail topic will be on the commissioners' agenda each week, with commissioners discussing "how we want to proceed ... if we want to proceed ... sort out our next action."
McNutt said a jail designer with Prochaska & Associates, the Omaha firm that helped the county complete a jail needs study, will be in McCook this week, and McNutt said he's wondering if commissioners need a jail design. Fellow commissioner Steve Downer said they "need good visuals ... something to look at." McNutt added, "If we feel strongly enough to move forward, we need something to let for bids."
Commissioners are contemplating building and operating a 24-bed jail, or assuming the operation of the City of McCook's 96-hour holding cells and continuing to transport prisoners sentenced to long-term incarceration to neighboring jails.
Either decision is going to require lots of public education, McNutt said.
Roberta Felker of rural McCook told commissioners, "It's time to quit draggin' your feet" and build a jail. Her husband, Dorwin, added, "We're going to have to have one," lamenting that construction is only going to be more expensive with time. Roberta cited low interest rates.
Dale Dueland of McCook said he's disappointed that more people have not attended meetings of the jail committee and county commissioners when they discuss a jail.
Dueland stressed to commissioners that he is not critical of the process by which the jail committee and commissioners have been and are studying the jail issue. "As a tax payer," Dueland said, "I'm all for economic development and projects that improve McCook."
Dueland said, however, he has reservations about the economic efficiency of building a 24-bed/24-hour jail based on the average daily prisoner count of seven and operating with a staff of nine. He said the efficiency would be improved with more prisoners, and suggested looking into the possibility of renting out bed space and contracting with immigration, other counties, and state and federal marshals to improve the prisoner/staff ratio and facility efficiency.
Red Willow County Sheriff Gene Mahon said that the county's daily prisoner population, on average, varies from seven to 15 or so.
Dueland said he would like to see consolidated law enforcement and facilities in Red Willow County -- not only Red Willow County, but also regional services -- another move that would improve a jail's efficiency, he said. "But maybe the public hasn't demanded it," he said. Commissioner Steve Downer said the joint city-county building proposed in 2005-06 was designed with an eye toward consolidated law enforcement, "but no one was asking for it."
Dueland said he objects to the possible location of the jail, on three large lots north of the courthouse in the 500 block of Norris Avenue in downtown McCook, because of "a negative impact" on the neighborhood.
Dueland said he would want the north and east elevations of a jail to preserve the heritage of the neighborhood, particularly considering the significance of the Sutton House on the corner of the 600 block of Norris -- the only house in Nebraska designed and built by preeminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Dueland suggested incorporating in the jail landscaping plan a small park with plaques explaining the Sutton House and the history of Red Willow County.
McNutt said jail committee members have indicated that the front of the jail would look "like general office space." Downer said the building could be set back from West F on the north and landscaping plans could incorporate several existing trees. Chief Deputy Alan Kotschwar said at a Sept. 21 meeting of the jail committee that the jail would not be "four gray walls and windows with bars." There would be no razor wire and no prisoners in orange jumpsuits playing basketball outside, he said. "From the outside, it would look like a business office."
Mahon said that with new technology, windows and ceilings can be designed so that outside exercise areas are within the walls of a jail. McNutt said, "I'm not worried about it (a jail) blending in."
Dueland said Monday he also objects to the Norris Avenue location because it would not be big enough for a regional jail. "The future doesn't require that the facility has to be there," Dueland said, even though "it's handy" because of its proximity to the courthouse court room and sheriff's office.
Continuing the status quo of transporting prisoners and assuming the city's 96-hour holding cells would save tax money, Dueland said, explaining that county deputies are well-trained and have "done a good job" of transporting prisoners since 1983. "What price they put on safety is up to the public," Dueland said.
He also said that not contracting for jail beds, but paying for them only when they are used, would also save tax money.
Building a jail without an election or despite objections by (the city's) planning committee and city council, "will cause hard feelings," Dueland said. Recall is often seen as the only recourse if citizens feel backed into a corner, he said.
McNutt said at the jail committee meeting Sept. 21 that legally, the county would not have to request or have permission from the city's planning committee to build a jail in what is currently a residential area. "But, out of respect, yes, we'll go to the planning committee," McNutt said. "We have no intention of hiding anything from anyone."
McNutt said Monday that without an election, county commissioners could work "a little faster," taking advantage of good interest rates and possibly better bids.
Dueland asked commissioners and jail committee members at the jail committee meeting Sept. 21 if there has been "any thought given" to carving out space for a county jail or county holding cell facility within the new City of McCook municipal building. "Separate space," he said, "a co-location." Dueland said he sees site acquisition, utilities and dispatching advantages in such a situation, and it would get away from objections to building a jail in downtown McCook. "We haven't turned a shove of dirt yet," Dueland said.
McNutt replied, "To be totally upfront and honest, Red Willow County stepped up and took the lead in a combined building in 2005," and city and county voters said no.
"Do we want to explore that again?" McNutt said. "The logic is great, but .... we went down that street and it's not a worthwhile option today. We haven't seen anyone from that side offering to join up."
McNutt concluded, "If the city had designed a couple-three cells, we wouldn't be having these discussions."
Sheriff Mahon said Sept. 21, "It's time for Red Willow County to look out for itself."
Dack said, also at the jail committee meeting that, to her, it appears city voters have already voted for a county jail by approving a new City of McCook facility that does not include holding cells that the county can use. "The city council knew what they were doing to the county," she said. The city is abandoning the use of the public safety center (that includes the holding cells) that it doesn't want to put any more money into, she said. Assuming the operation of the holding cells, and making changes if necessary, will cost the county more money on top of the transport of prisoners and the rental of beds in out-of-county jails, Dack said. If the county does not use the cells, deputies will have to haul a prisoner immediately to an out-of-county jail, meaning more trips back-and-forth and to-and-from McCook, and the county will need more deputies and more cars, she said.
Commissioner Steve Downer agreed, saying that the proposed 4.5 cent levy to build a jail "is a small part" of a tax payer's total tax bill. "The jail bond ends in 20 years," he said. "And we can continue to transport 'til hell freezes over."
McNutt said that a former long-time Red Willow County commissioner told him the only mistake he made was remodeling the courthouse with $1 million set for a jail in the mid- to late-1980s. "If we continue to transport prisoners," McNutt said, "we'll be revisiting the jail issue in another 10 years."
Chief Deputy Alan Kotschwar said during the jail meeting Sept. 21 that it is possible that other agencies could house their prisoners at a Red Willow County jail, but the latest jail size projections have been based on the needs of Red Willow County.
McNutt said that while those options are there, they're basing this jail proposal on the county's own needs. He said the jail is not being proposed as a "money maker," and Kotschwar added that proposed budgets of revenues and expenses do not include bed rental that may or may not happen.
Rental from bed space would be funneled into the county's general fund, and then designated for jail use, McNutt said.
The 20-year jail bond is estimated to cost $340,000 a year. At the county's current valuation, that boils down to an additional $46 a year in taxes for the owner of a $100,000 home, and an additional $460 a year for the owner of a $1 million farm or ranch.
While operating costs for a new jail are hard to pin down, commissioners and jail committee members are using budgets for similar-sized new jails in Cherry and Butler counties.
Downer said Sept. 21 that operating the city's holding cells with county staff and continuing to transport long-term prisoners will cost about $800,000 a year. The construction of a jail and its operations would cost about $983,000 a year over the same 20-year span. And the bond levy ends in 20 years.
"That's a pretty minimal difference when you come down to it," Downer said.
Commissioner Vesta Dack said she agrees with jail committee members who have said that the decision boils down to the county owning and operating its own jail, or renting jail bed space, transporting prisoners and using the city's 96-hour holding cell facility. Dack doesn't feel the county has much choice whether or not to build a jail. "It comes down to owning or renting," she said.
McNutt said the feedback he has gotten thus far has been "pretty positive," that most of the tax payers who have expressed an opinion "feel the jail is a necessity." The biggest question, he said, is how the county pays for its operation.
Either way -- building a jail and paying for its daily operation, or assuming the operating costs of the city's 96-hour holding cells and continuing to transport prisoners and contract for jail beds -- is going to cost the county more money than it is currently spending on transport and jail bed rental, McNutt has said.
"It's time for commissioners to make a decision," McNutt said Monday. "This is definitely one of the biggest decisions the three of us will ever make. It could run us out of office, but we can't worry about that."
He continued, "We're not trying to ram anything down anyone's throat. We're trying to solve a problem here."
Commissioners will discuss the purchase of two rental houses at 520 Norris with property owners Janet and Greg Hepp at their Monday, Oct. 3 meeting at 9:30 a.m.
Price negotiations will take place in closed session, McNutt said.
Greg Hepp told commissioners Monday morning, "My intention is not to do anything to stand in the way. I think we need it (a jail), too."
The purchase of those houses would mean the county owns the whole half-block facing Norris Avenue.