Public Safety Building (copy)

Two Dane County committees recommended a proposal to build a tower next to the Public Safety Building, 115 W. Doty St.

Following unanimous votes from two Dane County committees Tuesday, a $148 million plan to build a tower next to the downtown Public Safety Building is the favored path forward for the jail renovation project.

The Public Works & Transportation and Public Protection & Judiciary Committees chose the least expensive proposal out of a total of four options offered by consultants. The remaining three options ranged in project cost from $161.1 million to $220.4 million and involved building on a new site that would likely not have been located downtown.

Dane County supervisors repeated ongoing concern for the conditions of the City-County Building jail floors, which were recommended in 2012 to close with “due haste,” while some argued for more options.

“This is not easy at all,” Supervisor Paul Rusk, District 12, said. “It is irrefutable that the way we are treating people when they are in the Dane County Jail is unconscionable.”

Ultimately, the south tower option will bring the county’s three jail facilities into a consolidated downtown location, address medical and mental health concerns, minimize solitary confinement and bring the jail into compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The proposal would also decrease the number of beds in the jail from 1,013 to 922, which worried Supervisor Tim Kiefer, District 25. Kiefer, a criminal defense attorney, also wanted to make sure that there will be enough programming space for spiritual services and other activities, such as yoga.

“I am very concerned that we are building a jail too small and that we’re going to regret it later,” Kiefer said.

Under the recommended option, the county would vacate the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building and the work-release Huber facility on the south side. It would renovate the Public Safety Building, 115 W. Doty St., and build a tower next to it on West Wilson Street.

The project cost is $148 million, but it is estimated that the county could spend about $220 million after paying the total principal and interest over a 20-year period. This would add an estimated $50 in taxes to the average home in Madison.

A resolution to move forward with building a tower will be introduced at the Dane County Board’s May 16 meeting.

District 2 Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, who does not sit on either committee, argued for the county develop a new option. She said the communication on the project has felt “one-sided” and that the community should have more time to provide input.

Wegleitner also urged committee members to quit “tinkering around the edges” of criminal justice reform.

“We are making this decision for our children, for our grandchildren and we know who’s likely to get locked up,” Wegleitner said, referring to the over-representation of African Americans in the jail. “This really is our future for the next 75 years.”

Wegleitner outlined an alternative proposal that would be informed by data from a pending study analyzing mental health gaps and resources in the community. She would like to see an option that:

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  • Establishes a target for reducing jail population by 350 people
  • Eliminating racial impact of home detention eligibility and expanding home detention
  • Expanding behavioral health diversion options
  • Holding initial hearings and bail hearings on weekends and holidays to reduce length of stays
  • Working with Department of Corrections to get more people released pending revocation investigations
  • Expanding investments in permanent supportive housing

Supervisor Yogesh Chawla, District 6, also opposed the county pursuing any of the jail options offered by the consultants.

“We don’t have the right options in front of us,” Chawla, who does not sit on either committee, said.

However, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said the county can both renovate the jail and address ongoing issues related to mental health and substance abuse at the same time. 

"We can in fact move forward with a proposal, that being the south tower, while at the same time, we can continue as a body to raise and look at issues to address recidivism, (Alcohol and Other Drub Abuse) and mental health," Mahoney said. 

This article has been updated to reflect that Paul Rusk is not the chair of the Public Protection & Judiciary Committee. Supervisor Maureen McCarville, District 22, is the chair. 

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.