Dane County’s plans for a major renovation of its jail facilities will be scrutinized once more after the Dane County Board of Supervisors on Thursday approved $186,000 to study three possible alternatives.
The decision follows the county learning that building a jail addition next to the Public Safety Building in downtown Madison could cost between $140 million and $150 million — up to twice as much as originally budgeted for the first iteration of the project.
“It is our responsibility in doing our due diligence to examine an array of options to find what is the most economical path forward for the taxpayers,” said Supervisor Patrick Miles, District 34.
In the 2018 budget, the Dane County Board of Supervisors approved a $76 million renovation project, which aimed to consolidate the jail's three facilities into one expanded Public Safety Building at 115 W. Doty St.
This proposal would have closed the maximum security jail located on the top two floors of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and the work-release Ferris Huber Center on the Alliant Energy Center’s campus. It would also have added floors to the Public Safety Building, located next to the City-County Building, across South Carroll Street.
However, in October 2018, the county discovered that the Public Safety Building could not support additional weight, even though it was built in the 1990s with the intention of adding floors. To address this problem, the county decided to build a tower next to the Public Safety Building, in the parking lot facing West Wilson Street.
Improvements at the jail are needed to resolve significant dangers to the safety of inmates and jail staff. In December 2016, consultants recommended closing the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building with “due haste” because of the conditions.
“If we vote this down, we again stall, probably, the most important decision this elected body, the county board, needs to make,” Sheriff Dave Mahoney said.
On Thursday, the Dane County Board voted to authorize the funding for consultants Mead & Hunt to analyze the following options:
- Renovating the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building and the Public Safety Building. In addition, this plan would replace the Huber Center at a new "greenfield" site, or underdeveloped land that is eyed for urban development projects.
- Renovating the Public Safety Building and using it to house work-release and minimum security inmates. This would also involve building a new facility on a greenfield site that would house maximum and medium security inmates and provide medical, mental health and rehabilitation services.
- Consolidate all jail operations into a new site. The county could vacate the City-County Building jail, Huber Center and the Public Safety Building. It could then look into re-purposing or selling the Public Safety Building, which could potentially offset the cost of building at a greenfield site.
Including the additional expenditure, the county has spent $4.8 million on jail project studies.
“If we don’t move forward with getting more data, we are not going to be able to move the system forward, so that people stop suffering,” Supervisor Paul Rusk, District 12, said.
However, Supervisor Tim Kiefer, District 25, said the time for conducting more studies should be over and that the county should move forward with constructing at the downtown site.
“There will never be a point in this process where we have completely studied every possible option,” said Kiefer, who voted against the resolution. “At some point, we are going to have to make a decision.”
Supervisors approved the resolution on a voice vote. Supervisors Heidi Wegleitner, District 2, and Yogesh Chawla, District 6 also opposed the study funding.
Board members who voted against the resolution opposed the identified alternatives and preferred waiting for the results of a county-commissioned mental health study before moving forward with the jail consolidation plan.
Wegleitner reminded supervisors that the county has previously committed to shutting down the jail floors in the City-County Building and opposed building at a greenfield site.
“We have the wrong options before us,” Wegleitner said. “I don’t understand why we would spend $186,000 to study things that we’re not interested in.”
In 2018, the county included $140,000 to study the accessibility of mental health services in Dane County. Chawla urged supervisors to delay movement on the jail project until that information is available.
“If we just wait a few months and really look at this mental health data we’re getting, I think that it could inform our path forward,” Chawla said. “Making the small investment of a couple of months could help us for decades to come.”