Sheriff’s Office: No ‘do nothing’ option for security improvements exist, something must change now
By Brandi Makuski
The Portage Co. Space and Properties Committee on Tuesday approved a design for a new county jail/county government government facility at 1039 Ellis Street.
The design chosen was one of four options presented by Venture Architects, a firm that has been working with the county on and off for about a decade on various plans and studies for a new facility to replace the existing county jail — a facility Sheriff Mike Lukas has said “was obsolete starting the day it was built.”
The option approved by the committee still requires approval from the county’s finance committee and Portage Co. Board of Supervisors, but if approved will likely not begin construction until at least 2019.
“In 2008, we were talking about a jail with 300, 350 beds, today we’re talking about 200 beds,” said architect John Kane from Venture. “I need to qualify that by saying we’ll always be talking about jail expansion; we will be talking about expansion up to 400 beds [in the future]. The number one need continues to be safety and security on campus.”
The plans include demolishing the existing law enforcement center and the building at 1039 Ellis St. — currently the home of a Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection call center — to construct a new three-story, 270,000-square-foot facility attached to the current Portage Co. Annex. Berkshire Hathaway’s lease can be terminated in 2019, according to county officials, if the company is given notice by Dec. 1 of this year.
The new structure would address current space and security concerns, and include two jail pods, four courtrooms, a space for juvenile detention, as well as offices for the sheriff’s staff and county departments, along with a new parking lot. Under the plan, the current county-city building, also known as the courthouse, would be repurposed in an as-of-yet-undetermined manner.
The total price tag for the project is estimated at $76.25 million — a number that will likely change.
County Board Supervisor Dave Medin pointed out construction costs for the plan were estimated for 2016, and those numbers were already outdated.
“I would change those numbers to include the same calculation at a three percent inflation beginning in 2020,” Medin said.
But the committee’s job, according to Chairwoman Jeanne Dodge, was to approve a design, not finances.
“At this point in the decision making, I don’t want to see a focus on financing; we need to make a decision whether or not we are going to the county board saying we need a building, that it is going downtown,” Dodge said. “The financing comes from the finance committee and the finance director. I was just looking for a position from this committee to send to county board.”
The committee approved the recommendation by a vote of four to one. Supervisor Dave Medin voted against the motion until more information on property tax consequences was available, something for which he said his constituents asked. Supervisors Tom Mathison, Jerry Walters, Don Jankowski and Dodge all voted in favor.
Chief Deputy Dan Kontos said the sheriff’s office staff would continue to do the best job it could regardless of the space issues facing them, but said the new design adequately addressed security needs for both inmates and jail staff.
“We’ll operate whatever jail you provide for us,” Kontos said, adding growing security problems with the jail and court system “has been made known time and time again”.
“We don’t like to rely on luck; in a building designed for a different era and different time, its unacceptable, it’s insufficient, it’s been noted in study after study,” Kontos said, adding the 80-bed facility is almost always over capacity. “We will make it work, the question is, what level of risk is the county board will to accept with this?”
Supervisor Tom Mallison said the decision to finally move forward was long overdue, and even criticized the board for consistently delaying any decision.
“The county board has dragged their feet and dropped the ball on this for over a decade,” Mallison said. “We’re totally negligent.”
The move now gives city officials a better handle on the future of its own offices, which currently owns 27 percent of the courthouse and has its own space problems to deal with.
“If the county board approves this, it gives us a clear direction on where the county is moving, then we can make our decisions based in part on what the county decides,” Mayor Mike Wiza said. “Our space needs committee can then move ahead knowing that variable.”
While Wiza did not specifically say city government offices would no longer co-exist with county offices under the same roof, the county’s plan does not include space for the city. Wiza has also repeatedly told county officials to “not wait for the city” in its decision moving forward to address space needs.
“We’ve got a couple of options…Mid-State (Technical College), as everyone knows has been vacant, it has enough square footage, so it’s an option,” Wiza said, adding other options were currently being vetted by a committee comprised of himself, two city council members and city department heads. That discussion would become public at some point in the near future, he said.
“It’s not my goal to have city hall move from downtown,” Wiza said, “but we’re narrowing it down to three or four options.”
Another option Wiza identified was for city offices to simply remain inside the courthouse after county offices move. But the building needs about $6 million in updates, to include addressing security concerns, new windows, making elevators ADA compliant, fixing the building’s HVAC system and installing a sprinkler system.
Wiza has also asked for city residents to provide feedback via the city’s website or telephone to his office at (715) 346-1570
The Portage Co. Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the recommendation at its June meeting.