Two female inmates rest in an observation cell where they are being carefully monitored for mental health reasons at the Vanderburgh County Detention Center in Evansville, Ind., Thursday, May 23, 2019. (Photo: SAM OWENS/ COURIER & PRESS)
EVANSVILLE, Ind. – As the fiscal body of Vanderburgh County government, the County Council must stamp approval on any public financing of a jail expansion.
Council members on Wednesday said finding money for a substantial jail project will be difficult, but they will continue to crunch numbers and explore alternatives with the help of consultants.
The jail on Harlan Avenue was built with 512 beds. The lockup often has about 600 inmates housed, with another 200 or so transported to jails in other Tri-State communities.
County Commissioners were told by consultants recently that a 500-bed addition likely would be full upon opening, and it would take 600 or even 750 new beds to meet long-term needs.
The County Council, though, said funding even a 500-bed project is challenging.
“We need a small, medium and large option so we can figure how what we need and what we can afford,” Councilwoman Angela Koehler Lindsey said.
For 2019, the county jail’s expense budget is $17.3 million. That includes debt service, staff, meals, and all other operations costs. Revenues are projected at $19.6 million. Any substantial expansion of the jail would likely take annual costs well above $20 million.
Some county officials have said building a large enough expansion for federal inmates must be part of the solution, because of the federal government reimbursement those inmates would bring.
U.S. District Judge Richard Young told the County Council at a recent meeting that federal inmates would be available for Vanderburgh County.
Many federal inmates are now housed in Henderson County, Kentucky, and Vanderburgh County loses income by not housing them, Young told the council.
But at least two County Council members, James Raben and Tom Shetler Jr., were openly skeptical Wednesday about relying on federal reimbursements to help retire jail construction debt.
Raben and Shetler said other counties could make a stronger play for federal inmates, leaving the Vanderburgh jail without financing it had counted on.
“I don’t want to be betting on what could be happening with the federal money, because I don’t think it’s a safe bet,” Shetler said.
County Commissioner Jeff Hatfield, who attended Wednesday’s council meeting, cautioned against a too-small jail addition.
“If we take your route and only go 350 (beds), you basically are at capacity the day you open the addition,” Hatfield told the council.
“But you’re at what you can afford,” Raben said in response.
Sheriff Dave Wedding said inmate growth shows no sign of slowing.
In the first six months of this year, Vanderburgh County booked about 5,400 people, he said. By comparison, Warrick County booked 1,200 and Gibson County 725.
Wedding, who is president of the Indiana Sheriff’s Association, said he recently visited the Indiana Department of Correction and spoke to officials there about Level 6 felons, who in recent years were moved from state prisons to county jails.
This has made jail crowding worse, Wedding said, but his plea to the state for funding relief seemed to fall on deaf ears.
“When you start talking about money, they shut down,” Wedding said.
State officials need to pay attention to what’s happening in local jails, Councilman Mike Goebel said.
“My hope is the state of Indiana will take a look at Level 6,” Goebel said. “That is what has put our local inmate population into a prison status.”
More: Consultants: Vanderburgh’s jail creates safety risk for staff, inmates
More: Richard Young: Federal inmates could help fund Vanderburgh jail expansion
More: Why is Vanderburgh County’s jail so overcrowded? Local officials weigh in
More: ‘Being poor shouldn’t be a crime:’ Evansville activist on bail bond reform
Read or Share this story: https://www.courierpress.com/story/news/2019/07/10/vanderburgh-county-council-grapples-jail-expansion-cost/1699895001/