Kewaunee County Board approves construction of a new $25.6 million jail
LUXEMBURG – The Kewaunee County Board approved construction of a proposed county jail and public safety building with an estimated cost of about $25.6 million at its Tuesday meeting.
That doesn't mean actual construction is starting immediately, but the approval by a 19-1 vote is a major step for a county that has considered replacing the now-54-year-old jail for more than 20 years and engaged in deeper study and discussion of plans for the past six.
If the vote on the new jail would have failed, the proposal would have been sent to a countywide referendum on the November general election.
"It's a huge benchmark that the County Board has committed to it," Sheriff Matt Joski said Wednesday. "I'm excited we're done looking in the rearview mirror. Let's keep looking forward through the windshield."
Although the project and its cost have been approved, it will take about several months to finalize the design and for construction to start. Joski said the refining of the design and diligence with costs will continue as plans are finalized while requests for proposals are prepared for potential contractors. Construction most likely would start next spring.
"The goal is to be able to lock in the best possible financing and be as diligent as we can be in regard to the bids to make sure we're really refining the project every step of the way," Joski said. "We want to make sure we're keeping a really close eye on costs. This is not the end of things; it's just the beginning of a new phase."
The idea to replace the jail came up for the first time around the year 2000. For more than six years, the county board and its Public Safety Facility Study and Jail Strategy committees have considered the options to replace the jail, which was built in 1968 and is the oldest and smallest county jail in the state.
Besides being outdated, the building has had maintenance, design, safety and long-term capacity issues for a number of years. Annual inspections by the state Department of Corrections have reported code violations in the building's structural integrity, electrical system (which is believed to be the original system), plumbing and roof.
The violations were grandfathered because the county was conducting its study for a new facility, but the county would have to address them if it decided to not build a new facility.
The proposal on which the board voted was presented to them at its June meeting, with Chair Dan Olson saying the board would either approve it during this meeting or send it to a November referendum.
Its estimated $25.6 million cost is down from the previous estimate of $32 million to $35 million presented more than two years ago. The bill to county taxpayers would be brought down from the total cost by more than $4.5 million, to $21 million, by applying about $1.65 million from the county's general fund, $700,000 from its debt service fund and $2.4 million in funds tied to the federal American Rescue Plan Act for COVID-19 pandemic relief.
With those funds applied to the cost, property owners would pay an additional $19.94 per $100,000 of the equalized value of their property over 20 years, or $31.44 annually on the $157,700 average value of a home in the county.
The new jail also would call for an additional 5.5 full-time workers at an estimated cost of $650,000, a figure that would be incorporated into the annual county budget for the Kewaunee Sheriff's Department, which has a budget of $4.27 million for 2022.
Jail capacity would expand from 22 beds – which actually was reduced to 16 last year by the state because an inspection indicated six beds were no longer suitable for housing – to 58. The jail averages 33 inmates a day, and while the sheriff's department does house overflow population in neighboring county jails, the number accepting inmates from elsewhere is limited, along with the cost and added transportation and logistical issues.
The new design also allows for more rehabilitation programming for inmates and changes the format from a linear model, with cells lined up along a long hallway, to a pod design that has jail staff in a central location with cells arrayed around them for easier observation.
The design also allows possible expansion of the building to accommodate as many as 30 more beds and offices in the future.
The new building will be built on 20 acres of county-owned farmland adjacent to its Administration Building on Lincoln Street in Kewaunee, so zoning will not be an issue.
During the June presentation of the proposal, Kurt Berner, a cost estimator for commercial construction firm The Samuels Group, told the board it would be ideal to start moving ahead with the project as soon as possible. He noted costs for construction materials and labor have risen dramatically over the past couple years and show few if any signs of receding in the near future, instead being more likely to continue rising.
The vote on the proposal was 19-1 in favor, with Supervisor Milt Swagel the lone dissenter.
"Most of the people I've talked to … told me very strongly they did not want the new jail," Swagel said during the meeting. "I'm voting no because of the cost, the way it's situated and how the planning went."
At the end of the meeting, Board Chair Dan Olson noted that the state of the jail, and plans to rehabilitate or replace it, always have been a source of controversy, leading to a recall election for many board members when the idea of replacing it was first floated 22 years ago.
Olson said when he was named to the chair in 2020, he launched a new study committee to look at the proposals of the previous study group. That resulted in winnowing down the cost by $7 million to $10 million, and Olson said the final proposal is the result of the work and compromise between all parties involved.
"When I took over as chair more than two years ago, I knew this was an issue that could not be ignored," Olson said. "The committee came up with a plan uniquely suited to the county, and most importantly we were able to get the cost to the taxpayers down. I'm confident we have done our due diligence. No one got everything they wanted; this is a project of compromise.
"It is no longer in the interests of the taxpayers to delay; it is in their interests to act. I believe we have served the citizens of this county well with this decision."
Joski also complimented the work of the committees to make the project financially feasible while still meeting the needs of a modern county jail.
"I think the refining process is something the people can really be proud of," he said. "It really was a healthy process. It was what it's supposed to be."
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
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This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee County Board approves construction of a new $25.6 million jail