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Turnout a huge hurdle for BV jail vote Nov. 8

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Supervisors feel their argument is convincing the public, but will it get them to the polls?

"We have a real problem," admits Buena Vista County Supervisor Bill Lanphere, on the campaign trail to inform voters going into the election November 8 on a $4.8 million project to build a new county jail.

Combining the vote with the general election, in which there will be no contest for any Storm Lake city offices, means that turnout is likely to be light in the highest-population center in the county.

"The against people will always turn out. How do we get people who support a new jail out to the polls?... We have a hell of a problem," Lanphere said.

Members of the board of supervisors as well as the sheriff are relying on a barrage of numbers and information, making the rounds to public meetings, civic groups and local media.

"We are trying to feed people the information. Once they are aware of this, I think it almost becomes a no-brainer," Lanphere said.

It isn't easy to pass the supermajority needed to approve bonding for a jail, and in fact, the county has failed before.

"It isn't an issue that gets people's emotions. This isn't like building a school - it's a jail. There's nothing great about a jail," Lanphere said. "You have to convince people by showing them the numbers."

Those numbers show a facility currently located in the courthouse that is at times seriously overcrowded and in need of expensive renovation.

They show rapidly mounting costs for transporting overflow prisoners and juvenile offenders to and from other jails and detention centers in the region.

"We are operating under a waiver because we do not meet the state standards in our jail, and we have been going along under a waiver for a long time. I expect that if we do not get a new jail built, that waiver will be terminated," Lanphere said. "If that is the case, it will cost us half a million dollars or more to renovate the old jail, and even if we do, it will be reduced in the number of prisoners we can hold and our costs will go up even more to farm prisoners out."

The current jail has 18 beds plus space for six short term prisoners. It cannot be configured to meet separation requirements to house juveniles and women. There is no place for attorneys to meet with their clients - an exercise room is currently used, but that does not meet legal standards. "For a fact, it will cost us over $100,000 just to upgrade the air handling system, and that does not address our problems with electrical, plumbing and all the other issues," Lanphere said.

The supervisor claims that the cost to renovate and continue operating the current jail would be "very close" to the price over 20 years for the bonds to build the new jail.

The question is - will voters agree?

"Some people in the north and northeast parts of the county say this is a Storm Lake problem," Lanphere admitted. "But the rules say that the county has to provide jail facilities for the whole county. We don't have any choice as supervisors - we have to do this."

There is some reason for optimism going into the election.

"Most of the people I talk to say that they understand that we need a new jail, and they tell me that we should just get on with it," Lanphere said.

"The delays have partly been caused by Farm Bureau, and Farm Bureau is the only identifiable reason the jail issue didn't pass the last time it came to election. Farm Bureau is not opposed to the plan this time, and that is a help."

With rising energy prices and construction prices expected to go up in the wake of demand for building materials in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, supervisors note that they have still come in with a jail proposal well under the one that was drawn up five years ago.

Location, once a matter of sharp debate even within the board of supervisors, seems to be resolved with the plan to build just north of the county annex in the Richland/Expansion area.

"It is an issue now only with that one neighborhood. A number of people who heard about the brouhaha tell me they drove out there and felt it was the natural place," Lanphere said.

Development of storage buildings recently in the area will provide a visual barrier between neighbors and the jail building, Lanphere said. School buses stopping in the area may be a valid concern, but the City of Storm Lake should be able to act to change that, he said.

Supervisors hope that the months of debate and switched site proposals have not polarized voters. "We did hear a lot of flak - people saying we had no backbone," Supervisor Herb Crampton said.

However, the board feels all of that debate eventually led to the best and most cost-efficient location.

"As far as the neighbors go, we can tell them that there has never been an escape from our jail. Neighbors to the courthouse now would tell you they barely know it is there. With the sheriff and deputies right there, it may be the safest spot in the county," Crampton said.

The space that would be created by moving the jail out of the courthouse could pave the way for a needed expansion of the court system. In fact, the state is strongly looking at making Buena Vista County an "expanded court system" for the region as it pushes for consolidation of services, according to Lanphere.

The ultimate issue is one that supervisors - and even voters - cannot decided.

"It is a tragedy what is going on with our society, and it isn't just here. So many people now have no respect for other people or their property," Lanphere said. "Society is more unruly, and it is showing up in the numbers in the jails and prisons - here in BV County we are right at the numbers that were projected several years ago if that trend continued."

Supervisors are pushing hard to help voters realize that the current jail has become unsafe and expensive to operate.

"We hope we are doing the right things to get people out to the polls," Lanphere said. "In a country where voter turnout is one of the lowest rates in the world, this is a problem."

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