Court being conducted around a 'kitchen table'
It's back to the drawing board as the Buena Vista County jail task force continues to search for an answer to its jail and courthouse problems and how to sell it to the public.
On Thursday morning, the jail task force heard analysis of and projections for the Buena Vista County Jail. After viewing conceptual drawings of what a new 55-bed jail, with an estimated cost of more than $5.5 million, might look like sitting between Sixth Street and the courthouse, the task force committee asked its jail planner and architect to take another look - this time at renovating the courthouse basement, the location of the current jail.
The presentation was by architect Chris Schiltz of Koch Harker Baltzer of Sioux Falls, S.D., and jail planner Brian Gibson of Plepla and Associates of Des Moines, and, just as Schiltz was preparing to make a 'educated guess' at the cost of the project, task force member Rolf Mosbo asked, "why wasn't the renovation of the basement of the court house addressed by the planner and architect?
"So far, today, nobody's talked about using the basement ... about renovating the basement," Mosbo said. "If we are going to sell this to the public, we're going to need to explore that option... especially if it even appears that it would be cheaper to do that rather than building something new.
"If we're going to sell this to the public, we're going to have to cover all our bases. When people vote, the Yes-vote will have to cost them less than a No-vote."
Discussion at that point changed from numbers of beds, parking and how a new facility would fit on the north side of the courthouse to whether or not renovating the courthouse basement to include an up-to-date jail facility would be viable and whether or not Schiltz would charge additional fees for doing a study of the basement.
Mosbo said it seemed like it would be less expensive to look for storage outside of the courthouse instead of using the present jail for courthouse storage and moving the offices that are still in the basement out of the courthouse into other buildings in Storm Lake.
Earlier Schiltz had presented plans showing the present jail converted to storage for the county offices and little or no renovation or expansion of the sheriff's office.
Going into the basement doesn't affect the needs of the court system or the storage needs of the other offices in the courthouse, as Schiltz and several committee members pointed out.
For coupled with the jail situation is a courthouse rapidly running out of space - both for storage and for offices and a court system running out of space to adequately hold court proceedings.
County court administrator Leesa McNeil told the committee that the court is holding proceedings in conference rooms where "where the judge has to squeeze into the room through the same door as the defendants because there are no available courtrooms."
"Renovating or expanding - this is about maintaining the sanctity of the law," McNeil said. "When people are gathered around tables like their own kitchens, the law is not being respected. The court system and our laws are what keep our society together. We can't afford to let this continue."
Mosbo's answer to that was that the committee was sitting in a room that could be used for a courtroom and the county could find other 'community meeting rooms' in other parts of the city, like rooms in the Forum on the campus of Buena Vista University.
Not building on the north side of the courthouse also would, Schiltz said, rectify the problem of losing the parking lot.
Putting the structure on the north side of the county courthouse as conceptualized by Schiltz would eliminate most of the courthouse parking lot, creating the need to find additional parking near the courthouse square.
But, as task force chair Willis Strawn pointed out on Friday, there are additional costs involved in renovating the basement for a new jail.
"Big problems exist with that idea which include load-bearing walls, moving sewer lines and sheer capacity limitations," Strawn said. "Not to mention, it fails to address the other issues such as the needed expansion of other offices and the court system."
These and the problems such as where the inmates would be held during the renovation.
"There would be the additional cost of transporting inmates to, and housing them in, other facilities while the renovation is taking place," Schiltz said. "And in all probability the entire courthouse would have to be brought up to state fire and other building codes for jails since the jail would be in the building. These would have to be factored into the cost equation of renovation."
The cost of the new building Plepla and KHB proposed? As the task force began discussing the basement option, committee member Dale Arends of Newell asked Gibson if a $100,000-per-bed figure was in the "ballpark" for the proposed facility as conceived by Schiltz.
Gibson nodded that it was.
"Well, coupled with other costs it looks like this plan would cost upwards of $6 million," Arends said.
Gibson spent the first hour of the 21/2-hour meeting explaining the ins and outs of his firm's analysis of BV County's jail data for the past seven years, how that data was used to make his company's projections for the future county jail needs.
"First I'd like to commend the sheriff's department for the amount of information it provided," Gibson said. "In our experience, there have been only one or two counties in the state where the sheriff's department was as organized as Buena Vista's."
Using this data, Gibson gave the task force an overview of the situation at the jail, starting with average numbers in the jail by classification.
"We looked at what the numbers of pre-trials were, what are the numbers of holds?" Gibson said. "And the numbers of females, juveniles.
"What we found was numbers here are a little different than in the rest of the state," he said.
"The Immigration and Naturalization Services uses the jail to hold undocumented aliens for trial or before deported," he said. "Also we see a rising female population being incarcerated which is it's own special problem since this jail, like most of our state's jails, were not built for female inmates."
Increasing drug use, he said, was an aggravating factor in the female felony arrests.