The Vigo County Council should set a budget on expenses of a new county jail and compel county commissioners to reconsider a lower cost option similar to a Michigan jail project, Councilwoman Lisa Spence-Bunnett said Tuesday.

“The County Council was set by statute and judicial action as a financial check on the action of county government. I have kind of concluded that maybe we have not done our job — yet,” Spence-Bunnett said on costs associated with a new county jail.

The council did not set a budget for a new jail before a construction design process was started, the councilwoman said.

“A budget is a mechanism, a tool you use to guide what is done on a project and we have not had that,” she said. 

Spence-Bunnett pointed to Saginaw, Michigan, which has a jail project with less staff and a lower cost per bed — at $75,000 per bed, versus $130,000 for Vigo County, with an overall $30 million lower cost.

“We have not called for any official or public review to see how they [commissioners] are doing that. I think it is a mistake and I think we should,” Spence-Bunnett said.

The councilwoman said an independent study in 2017 recommended a new county jail with about 420 beds, “but the Council did not publicly make any push for commissioners to follow that recommendation as a way to reduce costs while still maintaining flexibility.

“We have allowed the commissioners to ignore a major cost saving measure that was recommended by the external experts brought in. I have to ask are we doing our job? Some would say it is too late,” Spence-Bunnett said.

“I would say we have not finalized things yet and with tens of millions dollars on board, it seems to me it is worth looking at even as late as it is. I don’t think that delaying the project now to do a little more research should be problematic.”

The councilwoman asked that the Council work with commissioners to review the Michigan project and review the current Vigo County jail plan to reduce costs, meeting a budget of $40 million to $45 million. 

<\z186667>The county is working on a jail designed for 501 beds with 140,000 square feet. The county’s consultants estimate a $60 million construction cost requiring an annual debt service of more than $5.62 million.

<\z186667>Since October 2016, Vigo County has been under a federal class-action lawsuit for overcrowding. Vigo County conceded the existence of unconstitutional conditions, and it and the inmates’ attorneys agreed on remedies, with U.S. Chief District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson formalizing those remedies in a court order in late February.

The federal court retains jurisdiction, with Magnus-Stinson monitoring Vigo County’s progress on building a new jail. The judge previously stated she expected the county to select a jail site by mid-May. Commissioners selected a former golf course property at 500 West Honey Creek Drive as the site for a new county jail and the county now submits monthly progress reports with the court.

In addition to a new jail budget, Spence-Bunnett said the Council should ask the Vigo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and the county’s Criminal Rule 26 Committee for a timeline and budget for actions that will immediately reduce the county’s pre-trial jail population.

<\z186667>”We should all hope that our county’s future is not in a jail. We should all hope that our county’s future is in our schools and in the education of our children,” the councilwoman said. “But as the County Council, I think we have to do more than just hope. We are obligated by statute and by judicial decree to manage the resources of this county in the best possible way.

<\z186667>”The school referendum that we just learned about..,” Spence-Bunnett said, “is a call to action to do just that. I think the County Council should take action to reduce the proposed cost of the county jail.”

Spence-Bunnett made her statement during a comment period for elected officials. No other council member commented on her statement.

In other business, the council in a 5-2 vote, with council members Mike Morris and Vicki Weger opposing, tabled action to move expenses for 911 dispatch services to a new public service income tax.

Vigo County Auditor Jim Bramble said the county’s Local Income Tax PSAP fund will receive $2,085,457 in 2019. The county’s 2019 general fund budget for 911 dispatch is $1,052,097. Bramble sought action to move the dispatch expenses to the new income tax this month.

However, Council Attorney Robert Effner said the council should first amend its salary ordinance to reflect that the local income tax is funding dispatch expenses, including salaries, instead of the general fund, then, vote to move all expenses to the PSAP fund.

The council also voted to provide $235,700 in 2019 public safety income tax receipts to 11 rural fire departments and fire protection districts and a similar amount for 2020. The funds will be distributed through a formula using 65 percent of each department’s annual runs and 35 percent of its property tax levy.

The fire departments, however, must request the 2019 and 2020 funds before July 1.

In a 4-3 vote, with council members Aaron Loudermilk, Mike Morris and David Thompson opposing, the Council gave final approval for a 10-year personal property tax abatement for Verdeco Recycling Midwest Inc. which plans to purchase $4.88 million of new equipment. 

<\z186667>Some equipment the company seeks to add includes new recycling lines for Food and Drug Administration-approved PET (polyethylene terephthalate) resins; handling and electrical work; building ventilation; air dryer as well as compressed air/water lines.

<\z186667>The company will maintain 32 full-time employees, with an annual payroll of more than $1.67 million, and will add one new employee, with annual pay of $60,000 plus benefits. Loudermilk noted the company has a previous tax abatement. 

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached 812-231-4204 or Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.