Jackson County legislators are frustrated at what they see as a lack of progress in planning for a new jail.
“Let’s get on the stick,” legislator Dan Tarwater said as one of County Executive Frank White’s top aides sat in for him at Monday’s legislative meeting. “It’s a public safety matter. People are getting hurt!”
Yet several weeks after a consultant suggested building a replacement for the downtown detention center, White has shown little urgency in addressing what Tarwater said is an issue of life-and-death importance.
“I feel like we’ve gotten nowhere,” legislator Denny Waits said. At some point, White needs to present some options for the legislature to consider, Waits said, because the body does not have the power to advance the project on its own.
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“We need to get this moving now,” he said.
White was not there, as he normally is, to hear legislators’ pleas for action.
Asked after the meeting where his boss was, county chief operating officer Gary Panethiere said he didn’t know.
“I thought he was going to be here,” Panethiere said.
The scolding came as legislators considered the latest White administration request to pay for fixes at the Jackson County Detention Center at 1300 Cherry St. Legislators had previously approved spending $2.9 million to repair 488 cell doors, money that had been set aside for that purpose.
On Monday came a request for an additional $533,000 to replace cell doors with money from the county’s emergency fund.
While he voted to approve that expenditure, Tarwater said he’d rather spend money on a new jail that would be safer for guards and inmates alike. Patching up the current one can’t go on forever, he said.
“We have to stop throwing money into a hole,” he said. “It seems like we’re going to wait until something really, really bad happens” before committing to building a new jail.
Bad things have already happened, including the 2016 sexual assaults of two female inmates by men awaiting trial on felony charges. The assailants had keys to the cell doors and were able to roam the facility at night.
In addition to security issues, the jail is overcrowded and decaying.
A consultant in early September said the county could renovate the existing facility at a cost of $150 million. But that would be a logistical nightmare and still leave the county with an outdated, multistory facility in an age when single-level jails are seen as being being more secure and cheaper to operate.
A new jail with the same number of beds as this one has — around 1,000 — might cost upward of $180 million, the report said.
Either way, the county would likely have to ask for voter approval to borrow the money for the project.
Panethiere made the legislature no promises on whether a proposal for a new jail will be forthcoming anytime soon. But he said he would convey the legislature’s concerns to White.