Over the next month, Webster County voters will have several opportunities to learn more about a proposed new county jail and sheriff’s office facility and the impact it would have on the taxpayers of the county.
On the Nov. 7 ballot, Webster County residents will see a question asking if the county should issue $45.5 million in general obligation bonds or general obligation capital loan notes for a new county jail facility. The bond referendum needs to receive at least 60% of yes votes to pass.
In the upcoming weeks, county leaders are focused on educating voters about the issue before they head to the polls.
On Sunday, the first of about a dozen informational meetings was held at the Webster County Fairgrounds. Approximately five members of the public attended, in addition to Webster County Supervisors Niki Conrad, Austin Hayek and Bob Thode, as well as staff from the sheriff’s office and jail. Also at the meeting were representatives from the consulting firms the county is working with to determine if there is a need for a new facility and the design of a potential new facility.
Webster County Sheriff Luke Fleener started by explaining the need for a new county jail.
The first and most glaring need for a new jail facility is space, Fleener said. The current jail’s rated capacity of 56 beds has been significantly inadequate for the county’s needs for years. Dating back to just a few years after the building was built in 1983, Webster County sheriffs have had problems with having more inmates in custody than the existing jail can accommodate. In an article from The Messenger’s archives from October 1989, then-Sheriff Chuck Griggs reported that the jail was currently housing 45 inmates, though the jail’s official capacity was just 29.
More recently, Webster County averages 75 to 90 inmates in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office each day, Fleener said. Due to inmate classification rules by the Iowa Department of Corrections, the jail can have fewer than 56 inmates and be considered at capacity as well.
When the Webster County Jail is at capacity, Fleener’s office must find space for the additional inmates to be held in jails in other counties like Hamilton, Humboldt, Guthrie, Carroll and Black Hawk. Those other county jails then charge Webster County a daily housing fee for each inmate held there.
Over the last five years, Webster County has spent roughly $1.4 million to house inmates out of the county, Fleener said. That number includes the daily cost charged per inmate by the hosting jail, as well as transportation costs and salary costs for deputies to transport inmates.
For the current fiscal year, external housing costs for inmates account for $350,000 of the Sheriff’s Office budget.
The lack of space in the current jail also contributes to more than 1,000 individuals being unable to serve their jail sentences for various offenses, thus keeping those individuals’ cases open in the courts until their sentences are discharged.
The total number of days needing to be served is 7,398. Inmates serving sentences for convictions are required to pay $100 per day in housing costs. That’s more than three quarters of a million dollars that the Webster County Sheriff’s Office has been unable to collect.
The proposed $45.5 million general obligation bonds include the cost of acquiring the land for a facility as well as the construction of the building. At Sunday’s meeting, Fleener was asked about a location for the project. He said that at this time, no specific location has been set, but they are looking at areas with about 15 acres and already-established utilities along the edge of Fort Dodge.
During Sunday’s meeting, Fleener highlighted the fact that the impact on property taxes for the proposed $45.5 million project would be spread over 20 years. Giving an example, he said a residential property with an assessed value of $100,000 and a taxable value of $52,000 would pay an additional $62.40 each year, for a total of $1,248 over two decades.
The webstercountyvote.com website allows residents to input their property’s parcel number to learn exactly what the tax impact would be.
Whether the bond referendum passes or not, Webster County taxpayers will be footing the bill for the cost of housing county inmates somewhere — it’s just a matter of whether that taxpayer money will stay in Webster County.
During Sunday’s meeting, Fleener also noted that the tax impact of constructing a new jail facility has an expiration date — the project would be funded by 20-year bonds. But if the bond referendum fails, the tax impact of having to house inmates in other counties, as well as maintenance and repairs on an aging building, does not have an end date.
The design for the proposed new jail is for a 60,692-square-foot facility that would house both the jail and the Sheriff’s Office. The jail would have 61 general population cells double bunked and eight special needs cells with one bunk, totaling 130 beds. The facility would also include space for jail administration, Sheriff’s Office administration, patrol, investigations and civil processing.
Following the meeting, tours of the current jail were offered. Otho resident Joe Tarbox attended the meeting and went on the jail tour, but he said he’s hesitant about the $45.5 million price tag.
“Do we need a new jail? Absolutely,” he said.
However, Tarbox said, he doesn’t like the “excuse” that the cost of constructing a new facility has increased in recent years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m more concerned about the cost,” he said. “Do we need one? Yes, after taking a tour of the place, I feel that we need a new facility.”