OUR VIEW: Lee County mindful of taxpayers during jail project

While there’s never a good time for major capital projects, this one couldn’t be delayed any longer

This has been an historic week for Lee County law enforcement. Although the new county jail isn’t fully operational, the sheriff’s office is doing business in the new building at 240 E. Progress Drive.

A county jail is one of those huge capital projects that municipalities and taxpayers dread for many years – or in this case, decades. The old jail was built in 1970, and it failed to meet Illinois standards. Trying to fix that antiquated building to bring it in alignment with state mandates would have been impossible. Even if space constraints and other issues weren’t involved, a complete overhaul would have been much more expensive than a new building.

The county found itself in a situation where the state could close down jail operations or inmates could file a lawsuit to force officials to put up a new building that not only met the mandates for jails, but the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The project had been looked at as a matter of when not if for a long time, but a new state requirement that came down a few years ago created a sense of urgency on the County Board. The old jail was built to hold 66 inmates, but the new standard said jails could only house one inmate per 50 square feet. The county had been putting as many as four inmates in a cell, so the new rule effectively reduced the jail’s capacity to 40.

Work began in earnest to educate the public in order to get a referendum passed. In 2017, on the second try, the local option sales tax increase that would fund the project was approved by voters. The County Board set the budget ceiling at $18.5 million and construction began.

The good news is that the project will wrap up 3 months ahead of schedule and is estimated to come in between $740,000 and $925,000 under budget. The design and building costs are on track to be about 6.7% under the initial projections.

The 96-bed Lee County Law Enforcement Center will be light-years ahead of the old jail in terms of security, safety and health considerations. Water leaks that couldn’t be fixed for long because of obsolete plumbing had filled the old building with mold, and it was made even worse by poor ventilation. Water from 15 to 20 different places leaked into the administrative offices.

The segregation issues couldn’t be properly addressed because of the size and configuration of the old jail. In addition to the threat of lawsuits hanging over the county’s head, it became costly to constantly move inmates to other facilities. The county will again be able to house women, who’ve had to be taken to other jails at considerable cost after an Illinois Department of Corrections inspection in March 2017 found the jail violated a requirement that men and women be kept out of earshot of one another.

The sheriff had only one tiny cell for segregating inmates with mental health issues, and the ADA shortcomings put the jail in risk of litigation while handling inmates with physical disabilities.

The new jail will have a mezzanine with an observation hallway and windows large enough to see both levels of cells, as well as a sally port, space for the sheriff’s department, a storage room, and a detention pond to alleviate flooding issues.

Technology improvements will also improve efficiencies at the new jail. The video arraignment system, which now exists in only one courtroom, will be expanded to reach all four courtrooms in the Lee County Courts Building. Video arraignment greatly reduces the costs of transporting inmates to court.

There’s never going to be a good time for municipalities to do capital projects on such a large scale. Rock Falls and Morrison know that after building expensive wastewater treatment plants. Sterling has been trying to squirrel away money for years as the clock ticks on their aging sewer plant. As quickly as construction inflation increases, the best time to do these unavoidable projects is as soon as possible.

It appears that Lee County has done its best to avoid cost overruns for taxpayers, which is hard to do on this type of project. Coming in ahead of schedule and under budget is a nice surprise. Taxpayers can also rest easier knowing they won’t ultimately be paying for an increasing number of transports or costly lawsuits.

Tours of the new building are being scheduled. Take advantage and get an up-close look at the payback on your sales tax dollars.