With the rezoning of property approved and the final purchase of property imminent, Vigo County commissioners are looking forward to the next phase of jail planning and construction. But an outspoken citizens group isn’t ready to give up its fight for a less costly jail just yet.
Commissioner Judy Anderson said she’s glad to have rezoning of property behind the commissioners and to be moving on in the jail debate that’s been ongoing for years.
The Terre Haute City Council voted 6-3 Aug. 1 in favor of rezoning just more than 22 acres at 500 W. Honey Creek Drive for a new Vigo County jail.
And while commissioners previously said they plan to build a 140,000-square-foot, 501-bed jail, Anderson said they haven’t yet finalized an exact building plan.
“We’ve had a plan for a long time, as far as that goes, but there’s nothing you can do for certain until you have the property,” Anderson said. “We are pretty sure of where we’re going now and have been working with the sheriff’s department and everybody involved — and I think we’re pretty close to a final design.”
Anderson couldn’t estimate when a final design would be available for public viewing, as they’re still drafting the design and have to get final bonding approved by the Vigo County Council.
Without the final building order in hand, the county’s consultants estimate a $60 million construction cost requiring an annual debt service of more than $5.62 million.
Annual operating and utility costs for a new Vigo County jail are estimated to cost more than $6.89 million, an increase of more than $2.56 million over the current jail’s costs.
“The jail is going to cost whatever the jail is going to cost no matter where you put it,” Anderson said.
But that’s markedly lower, long term, than what it would have cost taxpayers if the commissioners were to consider building a multi-story jail on the current Vigo government campus between Cherry and Ohio streets, Anderson said.
“Any jail near the courthouse would have had to be a multiple-story jail or one that would have taken up the whole parking lot. Plus we would have had to pay $1 million-whatever for the Thompson Honda lot” Anderson said. “Not to mention we would have had to build a parking garage and possibly tear down the old jail, which would be a big project in itself.”
At the end of the day, Anderson said, she’s just glad to be moving forward with the project and showing Chief U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson that progress, no matter how incremental, is being made.
“We’re fortunate that she’s given us as much leeway as she has to this point,” Anderson said. “Because it’s like she’s told us, we were to have a site selected.”
The need for a new jail was borne of a 2016 class-action lawsuit arguing unconstitutional conditions and that jail population regularly exceeded a 268-inmate cap set in a consent decree issued in 2008.
County officials agreed the current jail and its conditions were insufficient and began planning for a new jail.
And while members of activist group Citizens for Better Government in Vigo County have said they’re sympathetic to those county officials named in the lawsuit, they’ve maintained it’s little reason to handicap the county’s financial health moving forward.
Charlie Williams, a member of Citizens for Better Government, said the group has largely been ignored by county, and recently by city officials, in its attempt to quantify public sentiment.
In the run-up to last week’s City Council meeting the group hosted both a Facebook poll and canvassed the city with a petition asking if residents supported a cheaper alternative nearer the Vigo courthouse.
Williams said the overwhelming majority, upward of 90 percent, favored the cheaper alternative.
“The Facebook poll clearly showed more than 90 percent of people were against the current plan. And the petitioning 85 percent were against it,” Williams said. “I don’t know how else to portray it, but the public’s sentiment certainly wasn’t honored by our public officials.”
Williams said Citizens for Better Government and the Taxpayers Association of Vigo County will continue to argue for a cost-effective jail at the West Honey Creek Drive site.
“What we want to get across is that taxpayers are not going to forget this, especially if officials don’t start heeding their constituencies’ advice,” Williams said. “I’ve never been in any of this to do anything but help the taxpayers of Vigo County. And I can promise this because I’ve talked to many of them. They won’t forget this.”
Reporter Alex Modesitt can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TribStarAlex.