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Allen County Council approves more than $300 million spending package for new jail in tight vote

FILE PHOTO: Rebecca Green
The current Allen County jail has been the subject of court hearings and countless public meetings and discussions over issues of overcrowding and inmate safety. A new jail, with a price tag of more than $300 million, has been approved by both the Allen County Commissioners and the Allen County Council.

The Allen County Commissioners got their new jail funding Thursday but it wasn’t exactly how they wanted it.

The Allen County Council passed the funding package for the more than $300 million project in a narrow vote in a special meeting, raising the local income tax level less than the commissioners wanted, and less than the accountants had said would get the job done.

That 4-to-3 vote came as a deadline approached for getting an income tax increase done this calendar year, and before a deadline imposed by a federal judge awaiting a plan on a permanent fix to address overcrowding and other issues.

In the letter dated Tuesday, the commissioners cited the frustration of U.S. District Judge Damon Leichty over the matter.

About 18 months ago, Leichty ordered the Allen County Sheriff and the commissioners to correct a number of issues within the existing jail downtown. Those issues included staffing shortages, chronic overcrowding, and inmate safety.

To address those issues long-term, the commissioners settled on a new jail to be constructed at the site of the old International Harvester facility about five miles southeast of downtown.

Public comment on the matter during the 50-minute meeting largely came from those who have spoken before, arguing the community needed to look at additional alternatives to incarceration, rather than build the nearly 1,340-bed facility.

Recent statements by Allen Superior Judge Fran Gull about the need for the jail to remain downtown, near the courts themselves, were also cited. The new jail will be located about five miles away, at the old International Harvester site on Meyer Road.

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Gull, who heads the courts' criminal division which includes many of those existing alternatives to incarceration has also expressed concern about the lack of input the courts were allowed to give throughout the entire process.

Attorney James Fenton, representing one of the groups opposing the jail, told the council that the federal judge overseeing the civil case addressing overcrowding cannot order the county to raise taxes.

"The (federal) court has not ordered you to raise taxes or to do anything else. But the commissioners won't tell you that," Fenton said. "And they won't tell you that the court could never order you to do that. The commissioners letter also ignores the fact that Judge Fran Gull who actually runs the criminal justice system says building this proposed new jail is unnecessary. And the commissioners new funding plan, any way you slice it, the commissioners want $320 million in taxpayers money to build the jail."

Council President Tom Harris said he felt the matter had to be addressed now, for the safety of the community.

"From my standpoint, I look at the fact that the mayor, the current mayor of a second largest city in Indiana, Fort Wayne; the candidate for mayor; the sheriff and his staff; city police; city police chief; Greater Fort Wayne; the chamber; associated churches; prosecutors; and, most importantly, the victims of crime need us to resolve this problem for this community," Harris said. "And so I will be voting yes."

But other councilmembers expressed ongoing frustration during the meeting at what they felt was the commissioners' lack of communication around the project along the way.

Prior to voting "no", At-Large Councilman Kyle Kerley said he felt he didn't get answers when he served as the council president, and that he is not getting enough answers now to justify the cost.

"I was invited to three meetings with the commissioners to discuss the jail," Kerley said. "Questions were brought up. Questions that weren't answered until a couple of months ago. We've asked for options, we've wanted to explore other options. When we look at other facilities across the state, no one has paid more than $165,000 per bed cost adjusted. And we're being asked to pay somewhere between $220,000 and $240,000 a bed.

"And that is not a prudent use of taxpayers dollars when other options have been explored. It will be a no," he said.

An initial attempt to pass the measure with an increase of .12 percent failed, with councilmembers Bob Armstrong, Ken Fries, Kerley, Paul Lagemann, and Josh Hale voting no. Only Harris and Don Wyss voted yes

A second try with a rate of .11 percent passed, with Lagemann and Armstrong joining with the "yes" votes. Additional funding will come from CEDIT funds, $15 million from American Rescue Plan Act monies, and another $20 million from the county’s general fund.

After the vote, Kerley said he hoped the public would continue to stay involved in the process, and said that the council will still need to approve the bond sale, giving them a "prayer" to make the changes they want and to get it to more of what Gull said she wanted for the community.

After his consistent no vote, former Allen County sheriff and current At-Large Councilman Fries expressed ongoing frustration at the process. And he wasn't optimistic about the possibility the outcome could change.

"We haven't been successful in getting any, the commissioners to listen to any of the proposals so far," he said. "So I seriously doubt there's going to be any kind of interest on their part to listen to any other alternatives.

"The reason I voted against it was because the commissioners haven't done their job looking at alternative plans that would have met all the parameters of the lawsuit for now and for the future and save the taxpayers over $200 million...There are options that were never even looked at."

Rendering of the proposed Allen County jail by Elevatus Architecture
Elevatus Architecture
Rendering of the proposed Allen County jail by Elevatus Architecture

In a written statement issued after the final vote, the Allen County Commissioners expressed frustration that they had not received the local income tax increase they requested.

"We are disappointed in this morning's decision by County Council to fund the new jail in a manner that harms Allen County for decades to come," the statement read. "While Council finally took action 14 months after our first request, their decision puts our community in a difficult financial position to utilize a majority of our cash balances, disproportionately burden residents of unincorporated Allen County, and provide no room for inflation or interest rate hikes in the bidding process.

"This is short-sighted and not in the public's best interest. However, they did make a decision and we will move forward with next steps as quickly as possible. Should the project be short of funding due to higher interest rates or inflationary pressures, we will be forced to return to Council in 2024 to ask for an increase in the Correctional LIT.”

In a hearing earlier this month, Leichty expressed ongoing concerns about the delays in the solution. He wants a status report by next week.

He has threatened unspecified further action if he did not see progress.

Rebecca manages the news at WBOI. She joined the staff in December 2017, and brought with her nearly two decades of experience in print journalism, including 15 years as an award-winning reporter for the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne.