Pilot Editorial

Monday, February 14, 2005

Why the uncertainty on the BV Jail site?

It is a shame that the discussions toward a badly-needed new Buena Vista County Jail are seemingly going nowhere fast. It's time for the county supervisors and SLADC to sit down and work out a reasonable solution to their impasse, and put an existing building to work for the public good.

When supervisors first started throwing out talk about moving the jail to an old school in Truesdale, we assumed it was a ploy to encourage SLADC to waver a bit on the asking price for the spec building, which seems a near ideal solution to the needs of the county.

At last blush, the supervisors were a mere $35 grand apart in negotiations - out of a $5.1 million project. So split the difference, giving SLADC some working capital and the county a building that frankly, has otherwise gone to waste.

So this week, we hear a supervisor saying that maybe the jail should be moved out of town and the spec building used for economic development. Well, yeah, if there were any industrial prospects licking their lips over Storm Lake, that building would have been put to use years ago.

And do we really want to move our jail and sheriff out of Storm Lake - perhaps even with the requirement of building a new sheriff's office in Truesdale?

Let's be honest. The population is in Storm Lake, so is most of the trouble and most of the arrests. And the court system. Part of the idea of a new jail is to stop the use of our deputies as glorified taxi drivers ferrying prisoners between jail cell space in other places and the courthouse.

And in the latest development, the supervisors are looking at a new list of supposed options - some of which the public hasn't heard word one about in five years of discussion about this problem.

They range from putting a jail in the old Wal-Mart to turning the city library building into the jail to building yet another "annex" building - one even suggests building a brand new building in the industrial park, right down the road from where the spec building sits empty.

The one knock against the spec building is that it is somewhat larger than the county's immediate projected jail needs (compared to the Concordia building, which would have been just the size for what is needed today). We don't see that as such a drawback.

If the designers of the jail had foreseen the growth in their community and build a larger and more flexible jail space in their day, we wouldn't be struggling over this issue today. Are we going to create a new jail that's just big enough for the beds we need at the moment, and leave the next generation with the same troubles and costs?

Having a building with some excess space will allow for the sheriff's department to have the space it needs, for future developments like a video courtroom, and some cooperative efforts with surrounding counties. Perhaps we can actually take in some revenue for a change instead of sending checks for $110 a night some troublemaker to be housed in the YES Center.

The only conclusion that seems to be coming out of all of the current uncertainty is for the county supervisors to ask members of the public what they should do.

Perhaps they will tell them - take a lesson from the success of the Awaysis project. Make up their minds about needs, create a project that makes sense, stick to it, and present something to the public that they can have confidence in.

This is not new territory. Months ago, for the second time, a strong committee was organized to determine issues and needs. They provided a pretty clear picture of what is needed, and the studies have not been cheap. Why now are we suddenly back to the drawing board, seemingly totally uncertain of what we should do, where we should do it, how big we should have it, and how much it should cost?

It's a shame. We have reported from inside that jail, and seen some of the things that the jailers see. The safety and security issues are real, the overcrowding conditions are alarming. We have had several years to prepare to do something about it, and it is time to do it.

We are afraid that all of this uncertainty, negotiating snags and failure to so far reach a unified agreement even within the supervisors chambers will make it very hard for the public to agree on anything that may result. It's hard enough to pass a measure to fund a jail, and darn hard to pass a "supermajority" bond issue, as it is.

No one has all the answers, and no possibility is ideal. It is a good thing that supervisors consider all options and guard our public funds in miserly fashion. SLADC to is trying to look out for the best interests of its mission and shareholders.

But if it appears to most, as it does to us, that the spec building is the best available option, a $35,000 difference should not be allowed to produce a stalemate that sends this jail project back to square one again.

If we don't do something, one day we are going to have a tragedy in that jail, or the higher authorities are one day going to stop providing us with the waivers from the standards we are not able to meet.

Then we will get something done.

It would be wise not to wait for that day.