Public Safety Building

The Dane County Board approved a $148 million plan to build an eight-story tower behind the Public Safety Building, after finding a previous $76 million plan to add four floors to the top of the building was not possible.

Two Dane County committees are calling for an investigation into why the Public Safety Building, which houses one of the county’s three jails, cannot support the weight of additional floors as it was originally planned to do.

Because of the structural mishap, the plan to update and consolidate the county’s jails under one roof will now cost $148 million — $72 million more than what was initially planned.

Twenty-seven years ago, the Public Safety Building was to be designed and built to hold the weight of more floors so it could be expanded, and eventually house all of the county’s jails under one roof. The building opened in 1994.

But after plans to add four floors and close the county’s other two jail facilities were approved in 2017, contractors realized in 2018 that the building wasn’t strong enough to support the weight.

County Board members want to know what went wrong, and why.

“I think we should answer the question as to what happened all those years ago, for the citizens and the taxpayers,” said Sup. Maureen McCarville, 22nd District, DeForest.

Community members were outraged at the new cost of the jail consolidation project during a June 6 County Board meeting to approve the renovation plans. As board members approved plans to build a much more costly eight-story tower in a parking lot behind the Public Safety Building, protesters chanted “shame” and “build people, not jails.”

County officials say updated jail facilities are needed to provide safe and humane conditions for inmates. The new tower will have mental health and medical beds, greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement and provide a safer environment for maximum-security inmates currently housed in outdated jail facilities in the City-County Building, which would no longer be used. The aging Ferris Huber Center, where minimum-security work-release prisoners stay, also will close. The plan reduces the total number of jail beds.

On Tuesday, the Public Protection & Judiciary Committee, which McCarville chairs, supported a resolution to authorize an investigation into who is responsible for the structural mistakes made when designing and building the Public Safety Building.

The committee broadened the scope of the investigation to include a review of the general contractor and anyone else involved in the construction of the building, said Sup. Paul Rusk, 12th District, Madison. The original resolution authorized only the investigation of the architecture firm, said Rusk, also a member of the committee.

The Public Works & Transportation Committee also supported the resolution.

The plan is for the county’s legal staff to review paper records and blueprints from the construction of the Public Safety Building that are archived at the state Capitol, Rusk said.

Rusk said it is possible the architecture firm, which no longer exists, made a mistake when designing the building. If that were the case, Rusk said, the city could potentially make a claim with the firm’s insurance provider, if the company still exists.

Another possibility is that the contractor cut corners while constructing the building, in which case the city could have grounds to sue, Rusk said.

“It’s so long ago, so we really don’t know what they’re going to find,” Rusk said.

McCarville said even if no legal action can be taken, it is important to get answers for Dane County residents.

“The jail is costing twice as much as we originally thought, and that falls at the feet of the taxpayers,” McCarville said. “We need to answer this the best that we can.”

If the County Board approves the resolution, Rusk said a report on the investigation’s findings would be due Sept. 1.

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.