Jail Expansion Costs Leave County Council At A Crossroads

Jul 11, 2019

Credit Isaiah Seibert / WNIN

An expansion of the Vanderburgh County jail could leave the county with an annual deficit of $5 million. That leaves the county council with a tough choice, either increase revenue or cut costs. 

County Auditor Brian Gerth told the county council Wednesday that there’s room in the current budget to set aside $2 million each year for the jail expansion.

That doesn’t come close to covering the $7 million an Indianapolis public finance professional said could be needed annually to operate the expansion and pay its debts.

Jennifer Hudson, a principal at LWG CPA's and Advisors, based her analysis on numbers given to her by the sheriff’s office. Her data assumes the jail will add 600 more beds and 48 confinement officers.

She said that those figures are preliminary, pending more information from the consultant, American Structurepoint.

“We don’t know … how many beds they think the jail needs," she said. "We don’t know the style of the expansion.”

Consultants with American Structurepoint presented designs for an expansion at a county commissioners meeting last month, but they said they would continue to work on those designs and have yet to come up with a price tag.

Hudson's analysis was meant to provide county officials with an initial idea of what they could afford.

"We are trying to determine some kind of budget, some kind of number to be able to put on paper so when a decision is made as to what this expansion will look like, we can try to figure out operation-wise, what it will cost the county and whether they can afford to operate the jail based on what Structurepoint is putting together," she said.

The county council discussed several ways to shrink that multi-million dollar annual shortfall.

One idea was scaling back the size of the expansion to cut costs. That doesn't sit well with County Sheriff Dave Wedding.

"If we build 300 [beds], we fail," he told the council. Wedding says a 300-bed expansion would be full the day it opens. 

The current jail has a capacity of 512, but Weddings says the his office has on average more than 800 inmates in its custody. The county pays to house many of them in other jails. 

Instead of cutting costs, the county could raise revenue.

Gerth, the auditor, says the county could levy an income tax of up to 0.2 percent with revenue earmarked for correctional facilities. That would give the county over $8 million a year to work with.

The county could also receive money for housing federal inmates. Wedding is a strong advocate for the idea and has proposed reserving 100 beds in the expansion for federal inmates.

Some of the more conservative councilmen, however, are wary of including money from federal law enforcement in any budget analysis since those funds aren't guaranteed.

This isn't the first time the county council has been at odds with other county officials over jail financing. The fiscal body denied a $1 million request from commissioners last August. That money would've paid RQAW, the previous architectural services firm consulting on the project,  for initial design costs.