Dane County could pay a consultant an additional $186,000 to look at three new options for a revamped county jail after the projected cost to build a jail in Downtown Madison next to the Public Safety Building nearly doubled to about $150 million. 

Dane County officials will consider three more options for a reworked county jail after the cost of a plan to build a facility next to the current one came in twice as high as expected.

The potentially significant changes to a renovation of the county’s jail system come after officials learned that building a jail next to the Public Safety Building in Downtown Madison would cost about $150 million, nearly double the $76 million that the Dane County Board approved for the project in 2017.

The three new options would still address the county’s jail needs, which include decreasing the number of beds by about 10 percent and increasing mental health services and other programming. Possible changes include renovating existing county jail spaces, not consolidating the county’s three jail sites into one, and building a completely new jail on county land.

“There’s been no change in the original goal,” said Sup. Paul Nelson, chair of the Public Works and Transportation Committee. “But the way we go about that has changed.”

To build the new jail in a cost-effective way, “we need to check other options,” said Dane County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Hook.

“At the end of the day, we still may come back Downtown and do this,” he said.

Two Dane County Board committees will vote Tuesday to determine whether the full board should approve an additional $186,000 in consulting work on the three options. If the Public Works and Transportation and Public Protection and Judiciary committees approve the extra money, board members would then receive a report from consultants with cost estimates for the options.

Changing plans again

Officials originally planned to add four floors to the Downtown Public Safety Building and consolidate the county’s three jail facilities into the renovated building for about $75 million.

But they were forced to change plans after contractors found that the building was not structurally stable enough to hold the additional weight.

The Public Safety Building, 115 W. Doty St., is safe as it stands, but significant reinforcements would have been needed before adding the upper floors, even though Dane County staff and elected officials long believed that it had been constructed to build on later.


Estimates to build a  county jail next to the Public Safety building came in higher than expected, largely because two support structures would need to be built at a cost of about $20 million.

Architectural and engineering consultants Mead & Hunt, Potter Lawson and HDR found the structural deficiencies in a pre-design analysis, representatives told the county’s Jail Consolidation Project Review Committee in October.

The consultants then proposed an eight-story addition on a surface parking lot behind the Public Safety Building that would offer roughly the same square-footage as the originally proposed four floors.

While the County Board knew costs for that option to be higher than $76 million, the $150 million estimate was a surprise, Nelson said.

“I think there was an anticipation that this option would be costly,” he said. “It was definitely a surprise how high it was.”

Hook said costs were higher than expected because building a jail Downtown would have required building two support structures below the building for about $20 million.

Steel tariffs, increasing labor and construction costs, and a lack of skilled labor and available construction companies were also factors, he said.

Potential changes

Money for renovating the jail was approved by the County Board in 2017 as part of a plan to shutter the Ferris Huber Center that houses work-release inmates and the outdated high-security jail on the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building.

Officials have said the antiquated design of the current jail makes it dangerous for staff and inmates.

“The issues of the jail system remain and still need to be resolved,” Hook said. “We still have to do something.”

Under the first option, the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County building would be renovated for maximum- and medium-security inmates. The Public Safety Building would be renovated for inmates with medical and mental health problems, and a building would be built on unidentified county land for work-release inmates, among other changes.

The second option would include renovating the Public Safety Building for work-release inmates, and building a jail for maximum- and medium-level security inmates on county land. The City-County Building jail and Ferris Huber Center would be abandoned.

Under the third option, contractors will look at buying land or using county property to construct a single facility to meet all of the county’s jail needs. The Public Safety Building could be sold or repurposed and City-County Building and Ferris Huber Center jails vacated.

State Journal reporter Shelley K. Mesch contributed to this report.

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