We need better fiscal judgment on jail project

Saginaw County, Michigan, has a population of a little more than 200,000. It’s almost twice the size of Vigo. They are building a new 511-bed jail which is about 10% larger than their current facility. They are building a new jail because of the age and condition of their jail which is currently around 60 years old.

Our jail is around 20 years old and is falling apart because it was poorly constructed and maintained. They are building the new one adjacent to the old jail at a cost of $38 million and they are using union labor to do it. Their cost per bed is $74,364. 

Vigo County is now planning a 485-bed jail (this week’s figure) at a cost of $64 million, excluding financing costs which will take it over $100 million to pay off. The cost per bed in Vigo will be $131,959 (not counting financing costs).

The Saginaw County Jail will be adjacent to the courthouse with a tunnel to provide secured access between the buildings. Vigo County is planning a much larger building in square footage around 3 1/2 miles from the courthouse. It will require transporting prisoners on multiple trips back and forth for the 250 days of the year courts are in session. Substantial transportation and staffing costs will be added as a result of the Vigo plan. 

The Saginaw sheriff visibly cringed when asked about the security risks, liability and extra costs that are associated with Vigo’s plan. Additionally he said, “When you’re transporting them to court from your new headquarters and jail, you’re going to have to staff something here (in the old jail) because you can’t just drop them off in the parking lot. And that was a problem we looked at, too. And my answer was that we couldn’t because we’d have to staff a sally port and holding cells, even if I tore the rest of the jail down.”

In Saginaw, the sheriff first worked with the prosecutor and judges to fully utilize pretrial monitoring (GPS tracking, Soberlink — a bluetooth device to check 3 times per day for alcohol related violators). Judges in his community frequently order release under these requirements because it is as effective and costs the county less to absorb those costs than to keep them in lock up. Less than 1/2 of those in his jail are held on a pretrial basis, and 90% of those in our jail are held on pretrial detention, mostly because they cannot afford the cash bail amount set. 

The Saginaw sheriff felt the multiple level pod design offered the greatest security and efficiency options. The new Saginaw jail is being built in an historic downtown district and is designed to maintain the look of that area. A building commission was established to minimize the politics involved.

Although it was not required by law, they got competitive bids for the project management and architectural design. “If you are shopping for a new car, don’t you shop around for the best price unless money doesn’t really matter?” he said. 

In Vigo County, a few longtime politicians have jealously guarded their process and only offered one version of the plan with no other options available for consideration.

We still have the right to insist on competitive bids. Since the County Council (not just two commissioners) must appropriate the funding, they could insist to see other options before voting on appropriations.

The project could be changed to make it more affordable, sustainable and practical. 

This will be the largest and costliest building project in Vigo County history. Doesn’t it seem like a good idea to exercise some good fiscal judgment rather than blindly follow an impractical and tremendously expensive plan?

— Mike Gordon, Terre Haute

Above the law?

Nancy Pelosi recently stated that no one, including the President, is above the law.

What about all those illegal aliens we got running all over the place?

— Mark Burns, Terre Haute

III

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