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Officials discuss plan for new county jail: Plans remain "fluid" at this point

By Joseph Slacian

About 40 people were on hand Thursday evening, Feb. 18, as Wabash County Commissioners and Wabash County Council members discussed plans for building a new jail facility.

While they were able to provide some details, not all plans are determined for the 300-bed, $33 million facility to be located near the Wabash County Farm.

“Our goal tonight is to give and provide to you some information, as far as where the county is at,” Council President Kyle Bowman said. “If you’ve been involved at all, you know the jail has been a point of discussion for quite a few years, even for previous sheriffs we’ve had.

“As a Council, we thought it wise to provide you with what information we have so far.”

Sheriff Ryan Baker noted that “the issue of a new jail in Wabash County is not a new issue. We’ve been dealing with this for years, and I think at this point we don’t have an alternative option than build a new jail.”

The current facility, located at 79 W. Main St., was opened in 1979 and was initially rated for 60 beds. The move was made to 72 beds during the administration of Sheriff Leroy Striker, and it remains a 72 bed facility today.

In 2016, Baker noted, the average daily population was more than 120 inmates. Three years later, it spiked to approximately 176 inmates per day. Since 2012, some inmates were housed out of county at taxpayers’ expense.

“That number has continued to rise,” Baker said. “Initially we housed inmates in Miami County. We expanded to Elkhart County, Tipton County and occasionally we house inmates in Whitley County or Noble County, depending on the needs.

“The issue on the sheriff’s department’s side of things is the safety of the inmates and the staff. When the numbers are what they are, it becomes a safety and security issue for everyone.”

Programming such as Community Corrections, Treatment Court and the like have helped somewhat, as there are approximately 300 people now going through those programs.

“Anyone of those folks could be in the Wabash County Jail,” Baker said. “But they are in the core programs that keep them out of jail.”

In addition, more than 880 adults are currently on probation.

“At any point, anyone of those folks can violate probation and return to the Wabash County Jail,” the sheriff continued. “So, there is programming just outside of incarcerating.”

As for programming for those within the facility, Baker said it isn’t possible because of the lack of space.

“If there’s an open space in the Wabash County Jail, it’s being used to house inmates,” he said.

In addition to the cost of housing inmates elsewhere, the department travels about 6,000 miles monthly transporting them to and from the various facilities for court hearings and other concerns, he said.

“These things are becoming a little overbearing for us,” he said.

The proposed facility would be about 90,000 square feet, according to Terry Burnworth, president of Pyramid Architecture Engineering & Construction, with whom the county has been working. The facility would use about 20 acres at the County Farm for the jail, as well as to have land available for future expansion.

“You didn’t think you would need this back in 1979,” he said.

The county is soliciting for architects and firms will have about 45 days to submit proposals, Burnworth added. Once that is done, the county will choose a firm to work further details, such as how to construct the facility.

Bowman noted that the Council has been “keenly aware of the growing costs of housing inmates outside of the county.”
Rather than changing the property tax rates to fund construction, Council is considering changing some of the credits property owners now qualify for, Bowman said.

“These property tax replacement credits … have been in existence for quite a few years now,” he said.
Council is considering lowering the credits from .5 to .4.

“These credits are assessed all the properties in Wabash County, but they’re assessed in different values and amounts, and they’re allocated based upon the property type,” Bowman said. “The majority of these credits currently go to Homestead homeowners.

“When you begin changing the credits we’ve been giving, the more drastic change is obviously going to homeowners because they’re receiving the largest amount of credits. The business owners, rentals, landlords and farmers have not been receiving these credits in significant portion over the years.”

Bowman stressed that the information provided Thursday was still “very fluid” and could change.

Audience members questioned various aspects of the plan, from such things as why 300 beds were chosen, to what will become of the current facility and more.

As for the 300 beds, Baker said “at 80 percent capacity, a jail is technically full. In a 300-bed jail, 240 beds is full capacity by Indiana state standards. If we were to build a 225 bed jail, at 179 beds it’s full on day one. We house around 179 or 180 inmates, so on day one our jail is technically full and we would still have to burden the taxpayers of Wabash County to house inmates out of county with a new facility.”

Audience member Nick Ferry asked why 500 beds wasn’t chosen, with the thought of housing inmates from outside of Wabash County.

Baker said he didn’t believe a 500 bed facility would be feasible at this point, adding “I truly hope we never have to see a need for a 500 bed jail in Wabash County.”

No decision has been made on the existing jail.

It could be converted into offices for various county offices, or it could be razed to create a green space and parking for the Courthouse.

Asked about a timeline for the new facility, Burnworth said ideally, work at the site could begin before winter this year. Even if that were to happen, the facility wouldn’t be ready until sometime in 2023. Actual work would take about 18 months.

Posted on 2021 Feb 23