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A very informative and well-organized town hall meeting was held at the Douglas County Courthouse last Thursday night to discuss the proposed new Douglas County Justice Center and Jail.
This was the second such meeting to be held in Ava; now a similar meeting has been scheduled at Squires for the benefit of folks in that area.
The Squires meeting will be held at the Squires Community Center on Tuesday, Oct. 19, beginning at 6 p.m. Elected officials, project committee members, architects and engineers will be available to present updated concepts, budgets and answer questions about the proposed project.
To recap some of the information shared previously, the current jail has 21 beds and is located in the same building as the sheriff’s office. The new jail would have 48 beds and would comply with all federal standards.
Sheriff Chris Degase, and the project architects, pointed out last Thursday night that the current jail does not meet federal requirements such as sunlight standards and exercise capabilities.
Rick Morton, with the architectural firm of Goldberg, Sullivan & McCrerey, of St. Joseph, explained that the proposed jail would provide prisoners with sunlight, yet the building would be designed so that the inmates could not see out nor would the public be able to see in at any time.
The indoor activity area would provide inmates with fresh air as required by federal mandates.
The facility is to be built on the lot just east of the former White River Electric building – east of the current jail and sheriff’s office – on property currently owned by the county. Some unoccupied buildings on the property would have to be removed, but county commissioners at the meeting Thursday said they have already received some bids for removal of the buildings, and the cost will be insignificant.
The facility will be two-story, with the jail, control room and dispatch center on the lower level and the courtrooms, judicial offices and the sheriff’s office on the top floor.
Prisoners would be moved from the jail area to the courtroom in a secured area with no contact with the public at any time.
County officials explained at the meeting Thursday that GSM was selected as architect for this project because they are one of the nation’s leading correctional planners.
Morton said that while the building would look like an office building, it would be reinforced with steel – vertical and horizontal – to make it completely secure.
All jail operations would be handled from the control room, with intercoms and cameras throughout to enhance the security and safety of both officers and inmates.
Special glass and a structured lighting system would allow jailers to see into the cells, but would not let the inmates see activity outside the cell.
Morton said the facility would contain 11 different kinds of glass, depending on the area and the level of security.
Architects said they want to get local people involved in the construction phase of the facility, and would also bid out the furniture and fixtures, again giving local businesses an opportunity to benefit from the project.
Someone asked if the new facility would benefit the Ava Police Department. Sheriff Degase replied that in the initial planning the city was invited to bring the police department into the facility, and declined. However, the city will benefit indirectly because all suspects charged with a felony must be held in the county jail.
In addition to meeting federal requirements that the current jail does not meet, the new facility would greatly improve the safety of both inmates and officers.
Degase said the existing jail has no intercom or cameras. With part-time jailers, there is no regular contact with inmates, and dispatchers are not allowed to go into the jail, unless they are cross-trained.
The existing jail also has no means of segregation of prisoners, meaning an 18-year-old brought in for a 24-hour hold might end up with a sex offender or murderer.
Likewise, the county is limited in housing of female prisoners.
With two females currently incarcerated on murder charges, one has to be held in a neighboring facility at additional cost to the county. Due to the nature of these charges, Degase says the women will likely be held for at least a year.
Degase recapped the cost factors associated with the limited facilities here. One prisoner who has been held in Taney County since March has already cost the county $8,100, plus the cost of mileage and inconvenience of officers having to pick him up for court appearances here, and take him back.
The cost of the proposed facility is $5.6 million which would be paid for with a one-half-cent county sales tax.
Leroy Winkle, with L.J. Hart and Company, which would sell the bonds for the county, said the project is scheduled for a 20-year payoff. At the time the facility is paid for, the one-half cent tax for building construction will be reduced to an on-going one-eighth cent for maintenance.
He explained to the audience that the county would be allowed to pay the bonds off ahead of schedule, and if they paid ahead, the higher-interest 20-year bonds would be paid off first, reducing the total cost of the project to the county.
On Nov. 2, county voters will be asked to approve two separate one-half cent proposals. The second is for operations and is not connected to the construction of the facility.
Degase made a valid point, however, in explaining the need for the second one-half cent tax.
Voters last year approved moving the county prosecuting attorney job from a part-time to full time position, at an additional cost to the county of $88,000 annually.
If the law enforcement sales tax is not passed, the number of deputies available would be reduced, meaning fewer criminals would be arrested to take to the prosecutor.
It is estimated that each one-half cent sales tax will generate about $450,000 for the county. Winkle explained that the result would be, for every $100 spent, it would cost one dollar more in taxes if both propositions are approved.
Degase and the county commissioners believe that construction of a new facility would actually generate more money for the county through housing of prisoners for adjoining counties.
Douglas County currently pays out in excess of $4,000 per month to other counties for housing prisoners. With the new facility, the county could house 8-10 inmates per month for other counties at a cost of $1,350 each, with potential revenue of $13,500 per month for the county.
One person attending the meeting compared the county’s proposal to the new high school proposal that was presented (unsuccessfully) to voters this spring.
The county, he said, is showing and explaining detailed plans of what is to be built and where it will be located. The school presented no plans and would not disclose a location for its proposed new high school, except to say it would likely be on Highway Y west of town.
In addition, this project will be funded by a sales tax, which is shared by out-of-town shoppers, while the cost of the school project would have been borne entirely by county property owners.
Winkle said the best numbers he could come up with based on information from the University of Missouri Extension, shows that 20 to 25 percent of sales tax revenue is paid by people from outside the county.