Government & Politics

Fast-approaching deadline to vacate county jail pushes KC to consider building its own

The Jackson County Regional Correctional Center (right) at 505 E. 13th St. The Jackson County Detention Center is just to the left, at 1300 Cherry St.
The Jackson County Regional Correctional Center (right) at 505 E. 13th St. The Jackson County Detention Center is just to the left, at 1300 Cherry St.

With less than four months left until its inmates are no longer welcome at the Jackson County Detention Center, Kansas City is planning for a new municipal jail.

The city operated its own for nearly a century, as part of the old Municipal Farm in Eastwood Hills near Arrowhead Stadium. The jail was closed in 2009.

Since then the city has paid the county for bed space at its downtown jail for municipal inmates and police detainees. But last June, the county decided it could no longer provide the space and gave the city a year to come up with an alternative.

The city says it has tried tried to negotiate, offering to pay more per bed or use less space, but the county wouldn’t budge. Now, city officials are moving forward to find a new plan.

Members of the City Council’s Finance and Governance Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of a resolution authorizing City Manager Troy Schulte to come up with a transition plan before the city’s contract ends June 25. In an email, Schulte said the city would pursue building its own facility for about $8 million. 

“Given the ongoing safety and security issues with the current jail, the uncertainty surrounding when a new jail will be constructed and its size, and unsuccessful negotiations for daily rate that we feel is cost effective for the city, the city will pursue the construction and operation of a facility that will handle both our police detainees and sentenced inmates,” Schulte said.

Schulte said the county wanted upward of $110 per inmate per night. The city, which currently pays about $54.03, offered as high as $73, but couldn’t meet the county’s request.

The new city jail would take more than six months to complete, and by that time, the existing contract would expire. 

In the interim, Schulte said the city would look at holding detainees at its patrol stations and other beds in the region. He said the city would also “pursue alternatives to incarceration where appropriate.”

Schulte said the city was looking at a few properties it could purchase and retrofit. The potential sites span both sides of the Missouri River. Those south of the river lie west of Troost Avenue. 

County officials have been in talks for years about building a new jail to replace the 1980s era tower in downtown. The aging jail’s poor design and limited staffing have led to security risks, and maintenance on the facility has been limited.

Medical and mental health services at the jail are reported to be sub par. Jackson County Executive Frank White’s administration suppressed more than half of a report outlining issues at the facility.

The budget city staff submitted to the council last month includes an extra $634,000 for the city to begin operating a jail. It’s unclear how much it would cost to build a new facility.

Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, 1st District at-large, said the situation didn’t “necessarily leave (the city) flat-footed,” but it would have been helpful to know the city wasn’t going to reach a deal.

“I think we have been very reasonable over the course of the past year as to what we might do to help them with their fiscal issue while still taking care of the needs of the city and I think we did that very openly and with the spirit of trying to help everybody out, but as they say, nothing lasts forever,” Wagner said.

Jackson County Legislative Chair Theresa Galvin said she’d like to see the city and county work together, noting Kansas City helped remodel the portion of the jail it occupies.

“I’m still working on it,” Galvin said. “It’s not over until it’s over.” 

Housing the Kansas City inmates has created “significant challenges” for operation of the jail, according to an August 2017 memo to County Executive Frank White’s chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, from chief operating officer Gary Panethiere, and corrections director Joe Piccinini.

One primary challenge is the building’s design. According to the memo, the building where municipal inmates are housed was designed to be used as office space and has blind spots.

“The poor design of this space creates a number of security concerns that are not easily mitigated,” the memo says.

The memo also says the county spends $93.31 per day per inmate to operate the city jail beds but was only reimbursed for $53.13. That has since risen to $54.03, according to the city.

The full Council is expected to vote on the resolution Thursday.

The Star’s Mike Hendricks contributed to this report.
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Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.