Commissioners, Council have joint jail project meeting

Joint meeting between Commissioners and the Council focuses on discussing progress and efforts regarding the jail project.

Nicole DeCriscio


Nicole DeCriscio


Jun 30, 2024

Commissioners, Council have joint jail project meeting

Discussion of building a new county jail has been ongoing for at least a decade, with additional taxes being levied as recently as 2020 to fund the project. 

The current jail was dedicated in March of 1987 while the late Harley Melton was sheriff. It replaced a small jail located half a block north of courthouse and west of the Tivoli Theatre.

The special joint meeting last month with the Owen County Council and Board of County Commissioners to discuss the project was standing room only.

All three county commissioners – Gary Burton, Bob Curry and Joel Lowe – were present along with council members Andy Wood, Steve Carrell, Amy Casebeer, Nick Robertson, Polly Chesser and Anton Neff.

“We want to make it real clear that there is no current jail proposal on the table. There is no jail being built. It’s still in conversation. That’s why we’re all here tonight,” Commissioners President Burton said. “There’s been talk on social media that we’re raising taxes; none of that’s true.”

Burton said that the council established a tax in 2020 that took effect in January of 2021. 

“Everybody in this room that is an Owen County citizen is already paying that tax, so there is no tax increase,” Burton said. “So again, just a quick update: we’re not raising your taxes and there’s no $40 million jail on the table.”

The project relies on the two government bodies working together – the commissioners are responsible for signing contracts and making decisions regarding the location, size, etc. of the jail, while the council is responsible for approving the expenditures required to build a new jail and ensure that the county can afford it.

“We have come up with, that we definitely can afford a $1.3 million payment,” Council President Chesser said. “Now whether we take that for 20 years or 40 years, that’s something that’s not been absolutely decided yet but needs to be because that affects our bottom line.”

The county currently has a little more than 2.3 million dollars saved and set aside for the project, whether it is to serve as a down payment, to help offset other costs or to help pay down the loan sooner. There is also an option for financing through the USDA with 3.5 percent interest and no penalty for early payoff. 

Chris Sailors from Elevatus Architecture presented the drawings from a 120-bed, $22 million facility in Lawrence County, Missouri that is slated to be completed in May. He also talked about a $25 million jail with a similar layout in Carroll County, Indiana that broke ground six months ago. 

Owen County Sheriff Ryan White said that the county jail currently averages 45 inmates but that in the summer months, they tend to have around 60 inmates. He also said that the current jail was originally built for 35 inmates. 

The Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) deems that inmates be separated based on various classifications and anything over 80 percent capacity does not allow for that classification. The current jail, which is one of two remaining linear jails in the state, has an 80 percent capacity of 57 inmates, meaning that once the jail has more than 57 inmates, they cannot be separated based on the necessary classifications.  

White said that the goal and what is feasible for Owen County is a 120- to 125-bed facility. Ideally, the facility would also have an on-site training facility and a large conference room known as a “war room” in which multiple agencies can coordinate their response and the desire to include the county EMA and county coroner’s office was expressed. 

“We need to prepare for the future, not just look at today and try to fix a problem that we have today only,” White said. “We have to look so that our kids and our grandkids aren’t having to revisit the same problem that we have now and that they’re burdened with it again.”

Councilman Wood asked what the life expectancy is of the jail, to which White responded that it is a 70-year rated facility and that another pod system can be added if future expansion is needed. 

White also spoke about a situation in which there was a missing child in July and that there was not a room large enough for the four different agencies to meet in and coordinate looking for the child. White currently works out of a former storage unit building that has been renovated for office space for the sheriff's department. 

“We’re not looking for a Taj Mahal. We’re just looking for a place to be able to work. That’s what we need,” White said. 

The proposed modern facility also allows for a service access hallway that would not require staff to move inmates out of their cells and provide easier access to plumbing and electricity.

According to White, the jail inspector from the Indiana Department of Corrections (IODC) said, “Ryan, you have the worst jail in the state of Indiana.”

White then shared his thoughts on the comment, “That hits home, you know one that sets us up for failure in many ways.”

He equated it to insurance.

“Every single person in this room has insurance, whether you've got car insurance, health insurance, life insurance, some type of insurance policy, every single person in here. You don't have that because you want it. That's not something that you get because you want. It's something so it prevents financial catastrophic failure in the event that something occurs and you need it. That is the same thing that this is doing. We're trying to prevent extreme financial failure, that if we were to be sued, something happened inside the jail or someone was injured, and we end up getting a lawsuit, we are going to go bankrupt. It will bankrupt our county. We can't afford to do that,” White said. “I don’t want to build a jail. The last thing I want to deal with is a jail.”

White also spoke to the condition of the current jail. He said there are 22 air handlers that need fixed that cost $10,000 each to repair. He also said that a recent failed pump that had to be repaired meant that they could not run water – which meant no showers for inmates and an inability to wash dishes and laundry. 

Dan Zuerner from Garmong Construction Services raised concerns over whether or not the facility designed by Elevatus could be built for $26 million. 

The county officials also signed onto a letter to explore what it would look like to partner with Monroe County to house Owen County inmates there. Monroe County would charge $37.50 per day, per inmate, and the fee does not include transportation to and from Owen County or their medical costs. 

White estimated that the housing fees alone would be between $616,000 and $812,000 per year. 

The need to build some sort of holding facility if Owen County did away with a jail was also brought up. And, several county officials pointed out that at the end of the 20 years, when the current tax sunsets and the agreement with Monroe County would end, Owen County would be in the same position. 

White pointed out that the department runs, at least in part, on the commissary funds from having a jail. He said he has a lot of logistical questions. 

Yet, a benefit would be the lack of liability for the facility or if something happened to an inmate, as that liability would fall to the regional facility. 

Despite these issues, it was unanimously decided it would be worth having the information on what that partnership could entail as part of their due diligence. 

“We need to know,” Carrell said after the vote. 

“We wouldn’t be responsible with the taxpayers money if we didn’t at least explore this,” Chesser said. 

During the meeting, the two boards also established a Jail Committee that is starting with Chesser, Carrell, Lowe, White, County Auditor Shelia Reeves and Jail Commander Bill Snodgrass.

No other formal actions were taken at the meeting. 

Finally, the two boards discussed location if the county decides to move forward with building a new jail facility. Suzanne Simmerman, GIS Office administration, spoke to the floodplain in the county, which is set to be raised by two feet. This change means that the property where the current jail sits would no longer be a viable location to build the new jail as previously intended. The county even purchased and operates a neighboring storage unit property to have the adjacent land for the project. 

Burton said that earlier that day, he was in talks to offer an exchange for the quarry property owned by Brett Franklin and Rusty O’Neal behind Wal-Mart and the YMCA. That property, which is approximately 30 acres, has easier access to sewer and water access. Burton said that the idea would be to exchange the approximately 107 acres that the county owns on State Road 43 that does not have easy access to sewer and water. Burton said running a sewer line to the State Road 43 property would cost $9 million. 

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