Plans to build a $49 million new jail in western Iowa’s Woodbury County could go to a referendum vote as soon as March 3. County officials said Tuesday that ongoing problems with the current jail are becoming more frequent.
Woodbury County Building Services Director Kenny Schmitz told the county Board of Supervisors that one of those problems is a shower that’s been out of service for six weeks in one of the jail's wings. Schmitz said there is a leak in the concrete floor for the shower drain, but he can’t find the leak’s source.
“It’s turned into a cleanliness issue,” Schmitz said. “Some of the inmates have been doing some rather unparticular things in that shower area since it’s been non-utilized. And we believe it’s become a slight health problem.”
Schmitz told the board that demolition work on the shower floor will need to be done to find the source of the leak.
Chief Deputy Tony Wingert with the Woodbury County Sheriff’s Office said in an interview with IPR that the more-than 30 inmates in this section of the jail have been sharing one working shower. But he said issues like this are the norm for the jail. The Woodbury County Law Enforcement Center was built in 1985 and 1986; it opened in 1987.
“There’s always mechanical issues going on,” Wingert said. “…It’s a 24-7 operation and people aren’t happy to be in there so they don’t treat the facility with care.”
A second issue Schmitz detailed to the board revolves around the valves for sink-toilet combination units in the detention cells, that he said need to be replaced. Schmitz said staff talked about replacing the valves more than a year ago, but “parts were becoming difficult to find.”
“We now are finding ourselves in a situation where we have one cell combi unit that is not working and it’s shut off and we can’t get parts for it,” he said. “We have several different companies looking and searching for us, trying to get those parts.”
Schmitz said if they can’t find parts, Woodbury County will have to completely replace the one sink-toilet hybrid that isn't working, and all the others in the building.
This was the first time some of the supervisors, including Board Chair Matthew Ung, heard of these issues. Ung told IPR issues like these show why the county needs to build a new facility.
“When we put money into an old jail when sooner or later we’re going to have to build a new one, we have to decide at what point do we simply build a new jail,” Ung said. “It’s no different than someone who has a car that continues to repair it over and over again, and at some point decides it’s no longer worth that investment.”
County officials have frequently talked about capacity issues and problems with the jail’s old HVAC system as two of the biggest reasons why the county needs a new jail. The jail, which Wingert said currently has around 225 inmates, was originally designed for 90 inmates, but renovations increased its capacity to 234 beds.
Schmitz said in an email to IPR that he’ll tell the entire board of problems with the jail “only when they carry significant importance that may in some way impact the Supervisors decisions or Woodbury County financial need.” He added that some of the supervisors already knew of the issues with the sink-toilet hybrid valves, which were previously brought up “a couple years ago.”
“Unfortunately Woodbury County’s Law Enforcement Center is 33 years old,” Schmitz said, adding that while they address issues as they come up, problems "are becoming significantly more frequent, larger, and with higher cost. Planning for future equipment replacement can no longer be identified as 'future'. At 33 years of age all systems have already reached life expectancy and the costs to replace them coupled with relocation of inmates for 90-days while work must be completed is staggering.”
Next week, the board of commissioners from Woodbury County and Sioux City that will oversee the $49 million jail project is expected to officially set the date for the referendum.