Frustrations rise in county officials over jail expansion

This is a preliminary idea of what the expansion of the 30-year-old Boone County Jail could look like. The Boone County Council has created a Justice Commission to investigate the need for each element of the expansion which could cost an estimated $45 million to $50 million.

The rift between the Boone County Council, Commissioners and Sheriff grew Tuesday evening as members accused each other of lying and wasting taxpayer’s money over a proposed jail expansion project. By the end of the evening, it was unclear how the matter would be resolved and who was the final authority on the project.

The first meeting of the Boone County Council’s Justice Commission met with six of the seven-member council. Formed to investigate the need for the jail expansion, the commission will be chaired by Marcia Wilhoite and Aaron Williams.

A resolution passed in August declaring the need for the expansion of the 30-year-old jail. In addition to more cell space, the project approved by the Boone County Commissioners included a new sheriff’s administrative office, a four- to six-bed infirmary, a morgue, office space for community corrections and probation, expanded male and a new female work release area, and a unique modular type of space so cells can be added when the time comes.

The estimated cost of the project is $45 million to $50 million and would require a new local income tax, LIT, of .2% to pay for it. Paired with the public safety LIT, the rate in Boone County could become 1.7%. The council has indicated state statute requires it to “investigate” the need and to do their due diligence, but there are no guidelines for how that should happen.

The commissioners and Sheriff Mike Nielsen are urging the council to adopt the new tax by Halloween in order to start collecting money in January.

During public comment, Commissioner Jeff Wolfe took exception with the notion that the project is new as of this year.

“It’s been discussed here tonight that this is just starting,” Wolfe said during the meeting. “That’s absolutely inaccurate. These discussions have been going on for many years.”

He went on to object to the council’s perceived responsibility of scoping the project. He said the council’s job, according to state statute, is to determine how to pay for it.

“We cannot reinvent criminal justice in the next six months,” he said. “We have individuals (in the jail) working in closets. We have an infirmary that is a storage room with one bed in it.

“The need for this building has been determined,” he added. “So what I don’t understand is why are we going to start over.”

He added that the commission meetings stretching into March would raise the risk that the project could cost significantly more because of higher interest rates and increased building costs. He proposed a long meeting to explain the project. The council did not react.

“I don’t have the time, personally, to spend the next eight months doing something I’ve already done for the last five years,” Wolfe added about the commission. “So if this is the way this moves ahead, I wish you the best of luck.”

Nielsen said he was embarrassed by the actions of the council over the last five months.

“Ms. (Elise) Nieshalla, Mr.(Aaron) Williams, you absolutely lied to me,” he said. “There is no trust.”

Nielsen said he wanted the project to stop because any delay will cost the taxpayers.

“I’m going to spend the last 14 months dealing with something that we’ve already worked on and finished,” he added saying he did not want to explain to the taxpayers that the project was going to cost $12 million more because of the delay. “I’m not going to do that and I don’t want any part of it if that’s what’s going to happen.”

Council president Elise Nieshalla faced Nielsen and tried to strike a note of solidarity by saying they stood together several times including when Deputy Jake Pickett was killed.

“Sir, it has been a privilege an honor to work with you,” she said, thanking Nielsen for bringing the needs of jail expansion to the council’s attention. “There are definite checks and balances here. It’s how government is set up.”

She went on to say that no one can predict interest rates and that even if the rates increased the project by $1.5 million to $2 million that the balance of the investigation and due diligence would be worth it in the long run.

“For myself, that’s a reasonable amount of risk to really understand the project,” Nieshalla said.

Nielsen responded that meetings between him and Nieshalla and another one with Williams were misrepresented. He also rebuked her for using Pickett’s death, saying she had no idea what it was like losing “someone under you” in that manner.

“I wish we could go back to the day when we could all get together and work through this,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is not going to happen.”

Veridus Group’s David Rainey, who was hired by the commissioners as the project’s owner’s representative, told the council that the design team will continue its work toward the commissioner’s original plan.

“By the fourth quarter of ‘21 (or) quarter 1 of ‘22, we will have the design completed,” he said. “By March, April, May at the latest, I would like to be in a position to where we are actually bidding this project and locking in our costs.”

He estimated the project forwarded by commissioners, but as yet unfunded by the council, would be complete by December of 2023.

Justice Commission co-chair Aaron Williams said the goal is to deliver a report on what the long-term needs for long-term sustainability are for the county’s criminal justice system.

“Once we deliver that to the commissioners there will be a separate discussion, independent of this investigation, to talk about how to fund that,” Williams said. “The only thing we’re doing now, according to state statute, following that to the letter of the law, is investigating the need.”

The impression given by Rainey of Veridus is that the scoping would continue regardless of the Justice Commission investigation. It is unclear what would happen if the commissioners and the commission would come to different conclusions about the “need.”

Williams indicated that if the Justice Commission did not see a need for a particular part of the project, that the council simply would not fund that part of the expansion.

Nielsen said the council has no authority to get into the operations of the jail or the sheriff’s office.

“It’s a constitutional office,” he said. “You can’t tell me that if I say we need 150 beds, ‘No, Sheriff, we only need 75.’ That is not in your purview. You’ve got to stay in your lane.

“This is the politics that comes around in a decision like this,” he added about his disappointment in the current Boone County Council’s actions. “All of the work this commission is going to do is exactly what the commissioners and I have been doing for the last six years. It’s absolutely ridiculous to repeat that.”

The next meeting of the Boone County Justice Commission is Nov. 8 at the Boone County Fairgrounds. Time is to be announced later.

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