Vigo County residents gathered Thursday evening for a public forum to discuss plans for a new county jail.
Citizens for Better Government in Vigo County arranged the forum, which featured a discussion with retired University of California-Berkley law professor Alan Kalmanoff. It took place just two days after a Vigo County Council meeting where residents voiced their concerns over the lack of research included in the jail proposal.
County commissioners hired Indianapolis engineering and architecture firm DLZ to research the county’s need for a new jail, including size and cost. They then offered DLZ a contract to design and build the jail. But disagreements over where the new facility should be located keep stalling the project.
Citizens for Better Government in Vigo County member Mike Gordon says the lack of independent research is part of why residents don’t trust the current proposal for the jail.
“There hasn’t been, to my mind, a good case for why we need to spend so much money and have the capacity to lock up so many more people, and to use my tax money and everyone else’s tax money to do so,” Gordon says.
Gordon says letting the same people who determined the size and cost of the jail benefit from its construction doesn’t make sense.
“That seems a little like the fox designing the henhouse, and then telling you how many hens to stock it with,” Gordon says.
County Council member Brendan Kearns says he expects the proposal to pass. But he says there’s been a lack of communication and transparency.
“I haven’t seen any formal plans,” Kearns says. “The last time a plan has been submitted to me came about mid-July.”
Kearns says there is no proposed location for the new jail. Currently, there are two options. The new facility could be built across from the federal prison in the county or next to the Terre Haute city courthouse, which is where the current jail sits.
Kearns says the current cost for the jail is projected at $60 million, and the county plans to fund it through a 0.25 percent increase in local income tax that would go away after that cost has been paid. He says while he would approve that increase, he thinks that projected cost is too high.
“I question why it needs to be a $60 million facility,” Kearns says. “That’s based off feedback that I’ve been given from construction personnel that have built similar institutions. They feel that $60 million is probably too much.”
Several Vigo County residents oppose the local income tax hike. Many believe taxpayer money should be directed to other areas, including local schools currently in disrepair. A pamphlet someone handed out at the Thursday meeting read “Fund Schools, Not A Mega Jail!!”
The county has been making plans for the new jail since 2002, after it faced its first of at least two overcrowding lawsuits.