Wood County ad hoc committee weighs options for new jail
By Kris Leonhardt
WOOD COUNTY – A county-formed ad hoc committee is currently weighing options for a new Wood County jail. A new facility could likely be positioned adjacent to the current courthouse/jail/sheriff’s department building in Wisconsin Rapids, on the current campus.
“We put together a committee to look comprehensively at not just the cost of building – the hard costs – but what the soft costs are involved if we put a new jail up; and then more importantly, what are the costs if we don’t do that project long run – whether that be maintenance, additional labor in the current configurations, transport, all of the things that roll into that,” Wood County Board Chair Lance Pliml told WDLB’s Insight program.
Members of the Jail Study Adhoc Committee include: Laura Valenstein, Jake Hahn, John Hokamp, Adam Fischer, Lee Thao, Dave LaFontaine, and Al Breu.
“They’ve been very aggressive with the meeting schedule. They are meeting almost on a weekly basis, to try to gather as much information as they can and eventually make a presentation to the (county board,” Pliml added.
“After doing some research, we thought we could put that jail exactly on the same site it is now – the same footprint – but that became somewhat problematic, when we had no ability to house those current prisoners anywhere else.
“The facility we have, it’s old, it’s crumbling in some respects, it doesn’t meet Department of Corrections standards anymore, and it’s probably a bullet that at some point we are going to have to bite.”
“We initially liked the idea of renovating and building on our current jail to improve its functionality, but we quickly learned that the cost of housing all of our inmates out of county during construction along with the hard costs of the rebuild would be significantly more expensive than new construction on the courthouse property,” explained Wood County Sheriff Shawn Becker.
Parts of the jail facility were built in the 1950s and added onto in the late 1980s.
“The jail is a linear style with long hallways and it is very difficult for staff to view inmates. The structure is old and becoming costly to maintain. The jail study indicated the facility would need over $5 million dollars in needed updates/repairs. For example, the sally port is small and cannot accommodate emergency vehicles. Much of the jail’s infrastructure is past its useful life and would require extensive renovation to bring it back up to a baseline.
“Our current jail does not adequately fit our inmate programming needs. There is simply not enough room. As we try to keep current with the future of the corrections industry, we aim to expand our programming and education options to reduce recidivism rates throughout the county. We have also recently hired a Criminal Justice Coordinator, Jail Discharge Planner, and Mental Health Liaisons to help implement programming going forward.
“Our current jail is old and needs repairs. We house 90 inmates out of county at significant taxpayer cost. This cost will go up in the near future. We are seeing historic low borrowing rates now for the public sector. We found hiring additional staff would be cheaper than out of county housing.
A recent jail study looked at the past five years of average daily inmate population, which resulted in an assessed need of a 300-bed facility.
Option No. 7
At a March 18 meeting, the jail study committee looked at a few options for a podular-style jail and found preference in a multi-level facility. The designed – labeled Option No. 7 – would fit on the courthouse campus using a portion of Avon Street.
“It would be approximately the same height of the current courthouse, Option 7 would house 300 inmates, Pod 1- 165 inmates, and Pod 2 – 135. Pod 2 would be a dorm style with the option to add more inmates if needed in the future. Option 7 being a multi-level facility will reduce the footprint of the overall structure. The pods are stacked on top of each other. Option 7 reduces the total cost of the project and eliminates the need to acquire neighboring property. A podular style jail allows for higher visibility of the inmate population, which makes it safer for them and our staff,” Sheriff Becker added.
Wood County currently contracts with Adams and Waupaca counties, providing nearly 100 inmates with accommodations.
“Our current contract with Waupaca; we pay $36 a day per inmate for 75 inmates. That contract costs $985,500 per year. We pay Adams County $35 per inmate per day to house 15 inmates. That contract costs $191,625 per year. Combined contract costs are $1,177,125. This does not include transportation costs to and from each facility. Transport costs to and from each facility (staff and transport costs) is $141,092.90. Total cost to Wood County is $1,318,217.90,” Becker explained.
“Our housing contracts are up with both counties at the end of 2022. We are expecting both housing rates are going to go up based on the trends and research we have been doing. Trends are showing the average cost is around $44.25 per day per inmate. Initial talks with both counties indicate the rate will increase to at least $40 per inmate per day.
“An important consideration to note prior to COVID, incarceration numbers indicated Wood County would have had to acquire 40 additional beds to house inmates out of county. This was based on our daily inmate population at the time (March 2020). Our current jail houses 132 beds. During March of 2020, at one point we had 129 inmates in our facility.
“Based upon Department of Corrections standards our facility is deemed full at 106 inmates. This is based on classification needs and space. Due to the increase of inmates we would need to hire additional staff.”
Becker explained that the county has spent an average of $985,000 per year during the past decade.
“Ten years equals $9,850,000.00. Now considering our current contracts and associated costs, we spend $1,318,217.90 per year. Project 10 years out, Wood County will have paid over $13 million dollars in out of county housing. We believe that’s a low estimate based on future projected out of county housing costs,” he said.
Becker said based on the county’s staffing analysis, Option No. 7 would require eight additional corrections officers and one maintenance technician.
“Salaries and benefits will cost Wood County $666,000. We need to add staff due to the fact we would be housing all Wood County inmates within a larger facility,” he explained. “Comparing out of county housing costs to hiring additional staff, the county would save annually approximately $652,217.90,” he added.
The committee will continue developing the design over the next couple of months, while assessing the needs of the current jail.
“In May, we plan to present our findings to the county board at large along with preliminary funding estimates. During this time we would also like to engage in educating the surrounding neighborhood about the jail study. In June or July, the board will vote on whether or not to fund a new jail,” Becker said.
Concerns about the jail were first raised in the late 1990s.
“In April 2001 there was a passing vote to authorize the county to build a jail. A second resolution was presented for the bonding of $20 Million to execute the project, which failed the required (a three-quarters) vote and the project was shelved,” Becker said.
In 2019, the county held another jail study and the board heard results in July 2020. The ad hoc committee was created early this year.
“Wood County is not alone in this process. Many Wisconsin counties are currently conducting similar studies due to their facilities’ age and the changes that have been made to the corrections model over time,” Becker added.