Special Report: No vacancy

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KCAU) – For more than a decade, speculation surrounding the future of the Woodbury County jail has been circulating. Now, more than ever before, county leaders appear ready to proceed with changes.

Voters will ultimately decide what happens, as even the least expensive options will require a bond referendum.

Jailhouse doors at Woodbury County jail swing open frequently these days.

“We outgrew it shortly after we opened it in 1987,” said Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew.

It’s Drew’s responsibility to keep criminals behind bars, but constant overcrowding means some offenders walk out scott free before completing their sentence.

“The sheriff will come and say we’re at the maximum, and we’re recommending that so and so be released. And that’s someone who previously has been thought should stay there,” said Chief District Judge Duane Hoffmeyer.

Intended for 90 inmates, the jail has twice been expanded and now houses 234 prisoners on a daily basis.

“I get all excited when it gets below 215 and a few days later it’s back to 234 and it’s just never-ending. It’s like sticking your finger in the dike and wondering when it’s going to stop,” Drew said.

Sioux City Police Chief Rex Mueller echos that concern.

“Sometimes the best tool our officers have is to take someone to jail. Our officers should no be worrying about the fact that they might not be able to accept that person,” said Mueller.

Overcrowding is just one issue plaguing the facility.

Built in 1987 on the site of a gas station, the county is spending close to a million dollars on benzine remediation, electrical, plumbing and other malfunctions known to interrupt court proceedings have rung up another million in expenses.

“The money pit kind of a building,” said Hoffmeyer. “Whether it’s water pipes breaking above their head, if it’s inmates flooding toilets — as they always say they just hope its water coming down.”

What’s not coming down is the cost of repairs on the aging building.

“It’s getting to the point that band-aids won’t do it anymore,” said Woodbury County Building Services Director Kenny Schmitz. “The continual repairs that we are seeing are escalating annually, not just the cost but the number of repairs that are required.”

Weighing heaviest on the mind of Schmitz is a collapse of the jails H-VAC system already past it’s life expectancy.

“It’s just a matter of time. It really is a ticking time bomb. And the disaster waiting is where are we going to move 100 inmates at a time,” said Drew.

It’s the reason county supervisors are edging there way toward a bond referendum on the issue, but any significant improvement at the jail will require the support of voters.

Simply replacing the H-VAC tops $5 million. Minor improvement for medical and booking needs runs the tab to $22 million. That doesn’t address overcrowding, add in just 55 beds and the total climbs over $40 million. Meanwhile, a new 400-500 bed jail tops out at $50 million.

“We could fill 300 within 30 days. That leaves150 for growth that could be potential for revenue,” said Drew.

And Board of Supervisors chairman Keith Raddig agrees.

“When you look at those options to gain revenue from having capacity of a new jail it becomes the most financially responsible scenario of building a new jail,” Radig said. “When you look at continued repairs to this facility you’re going to spend $20-22 million and have zero new capacity zero new revenue and its all expenses.”

“If you look at the county as a whole and you’re a board of supervisor, it’s the only path that makes sense. When you look at it as a taxpayer, yes it’s a big pill to swallow, but you’re going to be swallowing some kind of pill no matter what it is,” said Schmitz.

When that might happen is unknown, but in July, Radig and the board of supervisors approved an architectural contract with a Missouri company to begin planning a new jail facility.

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