Woodbury County Eyes New Jail

Jul 31, 2019

Woodbury County is starting the process of building a new jail, joining several others around the state that are building new jails or making major renovations.

The county’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took the first step, approving an architecture contract with a firm that will put together a preliminary design for a jail.

“For the public, this is kind of the culmination of a lot of work getting to this point,” Board Chair Keith Radig said.

Radig said after the county gets more plans put together on the project, it will look to potential partners to help reduce the cost to taxpayers. The county could turn to local police departments looking to upgrade their own facilities to build together and cut down on costs.

"I think any chance we can get to save taxpayer money by working together, I think we should make that a goal," he said.

Woodbury County will eventually have to go to the voters to approve a bond for the facility. A time frame has not been set. 

An advisory group has been working for the last four years to look at the future of the Woodbury County Law Enforcement Center and whether it would be worth building a new facility or renovating the current one. The jail, located in downtown Sioux City, was built in 1985 and 1986.

Originally designed for 90 inmates, renovations increased the capacity to 234 beds. The county wants a new facility with upgraded infrastructure and around 200 more beds. The new 440-bed facility is expected to cost $49.5 million.

In an interview with Iowa Public Radio, Major Tony Wingert of the Woodbury County Sheriff’s Office said renovating the current jail would cost at least $20 million and only allow the county to add around 30 to 40 more beds. But building a completely new facility gives the county a chance to grow into it.

“And we’re not coming back to the taxpayers a few years from now saying ‘hey we need to do this again’,” Wingert said.

At a previous Woodbury County supervisors meeting, supervisors were told the HVAC systems have exceeded their 25-year life expectancy.

Should the HVAC systems fail, the county would need to transport all inmates to nearby county jails, a “worst case scenario,” Wingert said.

In discussions with Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew, sheriffs from other counties near Woodbury said they could house roughly 30 inmates dispersed across northwest Iowa jails. Transporting inmates to Polk County would be expensive: “Well in excess of $7 million a year,” Woodbury County Board Chair Keith Radig estimated.

Discussions about a new jail are also taking into account housing federal inmates and detainees. Woodbury County already has a contract to hold federal inmates, according to the Woodbury County Sheriff’s Office. They can hold at least 15 inmates, if room is available. The county has recently been holding around five.

Woodbury County charges $53 per day per federal inmate. The U.S. Marshals Service pays medical expenses. The county is working to renegotiate the contract.

Major Wingert said more housing federal inmates could lower the taxpayer base’s responsibility to build the facility.

“We feel that if we could give the federal agencies 100 beds, that this jail might in fact pay for itself over 20 years,” Wingert said.

Radig agreed with that, saying the amount of revenue from this could pay down the bond and “basically get you a brand new jail for free.” He said that if Woodbury County builds a new facility with “proper rec facilities” and transport, the county could get a higher payout per federal inmate per day.

Recent Jail Upgrades And New Jails In Other Counties:

Woodbury County is not the only county in the state pursuing a new jail.

According to a list emailed to Iowa Public Radio from State Jail Inspector Delbert Longley and the Iowa Association of Counties, eight new county jails and holding facilities have sprung up since 2014.

Six counties (excluding Woodbury) have current projects in the works. In the last 15 years, nearly half of all the jails and holding facilities in the state have worked on a large renovation or getting a new jail entirely, the email said.

Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick says his county’s old facility that opened in 1939 could only hold 14. Mellick said the jail was not up to code or ADA standards.

“It was becoming unsafe,” Mellick said. “We had room for eight in our main jail and it didn’t matter if it was a felon or a misdemeanor. They were all mixed in together.”

The county, with a population of roughly 14,000, passed a $5 million bond in 2015 looking far into the future. The new jail completed in 2017 can hold 42 inmates and 11 more in holding cells. Mellick said the county built a new jail with an eye towards future expansion.

“You’re not building it for today,” Mellick said. “You’re building it for today and hopefully 80 years into the future.”

Unlike Woodbury County, Allamakee doesn’t contract for federal inmates, Mellick said. He said he didn’t want to go to the public and present a new jail as “a revenue generator.”

Allamakee County has an agreement with other nearby counties in its region. If a jail in the region is contracting for federal inmates and needs a space for their local and state-sentenced offenders, Allamakee will hold them to free up room.