As part of a series of articles that will be focused on Boone County leadership’s intent to build a justice center onto the existing county jail, this article will first focus on the need for the justice center with input provided by key stakeholders as the expansion relates to their respective departments and responsibilities.
In this first segment, Boone County Sheriff Michael Nielsen, Commissioners Tom Santelli and Jeff Wolfe and Boone County Attorney Bob Clutter weigh in on the most fundamental question—why does Boone County need to expand its justice center?
Why Does Boone County Need an Expanded Justice Center?
A jail feasibility study recommended the county jail expand beds to accommodate the county’s exponential growth. Boone County is one of the fastest-growing counties in all the state’s 92 counties. Per Clutter, the [feasibility] study estimated that the county jail would need double the beds.
In addition to additional beds for inmates, or “clients” as Nielsen respectfully addresses them, the proposed project would also create additional and much-needed space for an infirmary, administrative offices for the sheriff’s department and the county’s dispatch center—all of which have outgrown their spaces since the county jail was moved to its current location in 1992.
Simply put, the county government has outgrown its facilities as a direct result of the increase in population and increase of arrests that are positive results of the passing of the Public Safety Local Income Tax (PSLIT) in 2016.
“We fought for the passing of the PSLIT that is dedicated specifically for law enforcement and public safety throughout the county,” Nielsen explained. “It brings in about $16 million a year but not just to us. It goes to the entire county—the state distributes that out to all the [county’s] municipalities. We get $5.9 million out of the [$16 million]. For instance, Zionsville, Whitestown and Lebanon focus specifically on law enforcement and fire services, but they don’t have any of the back-end services like the court services, prosecutors’ offices, community corrections or the jail.
Commissioner Tom Santelli added, “We [county officials] would love to get some of those funds for operations because Lebanon, Whitestown and Zionsville bring those arrested here [Boone County Jail], and we [Boone County] incur all of the costs associated with those arrests.”
“When the PSLIT was passed, it allowed each [Boone County] municipality to hire more officers and to put more vehicles on the street,” Wolfe said. “That means more people are heading the sheriff’s way, and in the last five years, the prosecutor’s caseload has increased a dramatic amount. The PSLIT effectively has increased the ability of the local public safety departments to do more effective policing, but does not provide sufficient funding to the County to increase Prosecutors, community corrections or jail services.”
There’s Simply No More Room to Grow
With county officials and members of their staff literally working out of converted closets and make-shift workspaces, the need for the justice center expansion has reached critical status.
“We’re keeping in mind that public safety is the most important issue in terms of our county’s economic development and its residents,” Nielsen stated. “We’ve opened up a can of worms and we’ve really got to look at how we expand this and how it’s not just a ‘jail’ expansion. I have always focused on rehabilitation—not incarceration. That is so important for everyone to understand. We don’t want to add a jail that houses 500 beds. What we really want to do is focus on rehabilitation, and while we will add approximately 150 secured beds [in this expansion], we are making sure that 30 years down the road, the future sheriff and commissioners don’t have to worry about the need for an expansion.”
Additionally, Sheriff Nielsen shared that the county jail is and has been at capacity since before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the numbers of those brought in and housed at his facility are not projected to decrease in the near or distant future.
“We’ve got to focus on rehabilitation,” Nielsen emphasized. “I’ve been very vocal about that. We’ve done a really good job in our jail, especially with the Medication Assistance Program (MAP) program. We’re seeing successes from that program, and when you can go from a 44% recidivism rate down to 17%, that’s pretty darn good. From a rehabilitation standpoint, we’re doing the right things, but we have run out of room to do them now.”
Nielsen continued, “Once we hit the 240 [detained] mark, we have to ship our clients [inmates] to other counties,” Nielsen stated. “As we are 100% responsible for the welfare and mental/physical care for our clients, once they are shipped out of our county, we can no longer provide them with our services and programs. We want to build a facility [on-site] where we could offer vocational services to our clients so that they could go out and be productive members of society. Our mission and our goals are to rehabilitate these inmates and not to build a bigger jail just to house more inmates.”
A tour of the current county jail facility verified the claims of personnel working out of converted closets, and the county’s 911 call center is working out of a metaphorical shoe box in the basement that desperately needs to be expanded.
In short, the county officials are working with facilities that were built or designated that reflected the county’s population in 1992, and they are seeking to expand these facilities for today and for the future.
Talking Points From a Litigation and Fiscal Responsibility Standpoint
The county commissioners, attorney and sheriff are also focusing on the crowding issues from a litigation standpoint. Nielsen noted that the county jail offers 24/7 medical care but is in dire need of an expanded medical ward or infirmary with current technologies to better address the medical issues that arise in his facility.
“Any county jail is the single biggest liability source,” Clutter stated. “We do what we can to try to mitigate that risk as much as possible. This is extremely important because litigation is expensive and spends taxpayer dollars.”
In the spirit of being frugal stewards of taxpayers’ dollars, the commissioners have been working with the stakeholders and county council to explain not only the pressing need for the justice center expansion but to also discuss why time is truly of the essence with regard to passing a Jail LIT. The consequence of passing it later down the road will result in millions of more dollars being spent at the expense of the taxpayers.
Commissioner Jeff Wolfe emphasized that the county has taken great care in spending taxpayer dollars over the years and has every intention of continuing those best practices in this proposed expansion.
“There’s been a lot of hard looks at this project,” Santelli said. “We’re about two years behind the curve. We have the perfect opportunity—if we act now—as we have low interest rates. We can do this project as a ‘Build-Operate-Transfer’ [Indiana Code 5-23], which is the best way to do any project of this scale because it is a guaranteed cost. Projects that haven’t been built with a BOT have resulted in millions of dollars of overruns. And for every percent increase in the interest rate, we’re looking at nearly $6 million in additional costs over the life of the project.. For every moment that we delay this project, we are increasing liability and not delivering services that we need to be delivering to the community.”
Clutter added, “Boone County has the lowest property tax rate in the state of Indiana. We have one of the lowest LIT tax rates in the state of Indiana, which is very eye-opening considering we’re one of the fastest growing counties and one of the wealthiest per capita. We’ve exhaustively looked at all the different funding opportunities. Realistically, the only way to pay for this project is with a Jail LIT. Boone County has a 1.5% income tax, and some of that comes to the county and the rest goes to the county’s other taxing entities. The Jail LIT is to be used exclusively for correctional improvements – which is the sole responsibility of the County. This is why the state legislature enacted the Jail LIT five years ago.”
“I think there’s 35 jails in the 92 counties that have either recently been constructed or are in the process of being constructed,” Clutter shared. “Using the Jail LIT is the perfect funding source because it goes straight to the county and can only be used for correctional purposes. Interest rates are going up, and that’s the point of this discussion. We think the project is going to be about $40–45 million. We are currently in the scoping phase of the project (with the architect) and will have final construction costs in the next couple of months. For every 1% increase in interest rates, county taxpayers will have to pay an additional $5.7 million in interest costs.
Why Not Use ARP Money for the Expansion?
There has been some discussion and disagreement over the use of American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds among county officials. Boone County is set to receive a little more than $6.5 million in ARP funds in 2021 and an additional $6.5 million next year for a total of $13,177,707.
Santelli explained what the $13.1 in ARP funds is designated for.
“This expansion is not new,” Nielsen explained. “We have been working on this for the last six to seven years. When I became sheriff, I created a five-year strategic plan and mentioned in that plan that we needed to have a building fund and needed to put back $250,000 each year to be prepared for now. That was never funded and always got defunded at the council meetings. We’ve been kicking this down the road for a very long time, and it’s time now that we take action.”