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01-20-06 Construction of new jail not in near future

By Tim Cox

  Mercer County officials are considering professional proposals for design of a new jail, but commissioners said Thursday they believe construction is still on the distant horizon.

  When asked whether county citizens would face a tax issue this year to help pay for the jail, commissioners unanimously said they did not think the project will develop that quickly. They cited numerous reasons why a more cautious, measured approach would be best.

  Commissioners, along with Sheriff Jeff Grey and other county officials, plan to take their time selecting from the seven design firms that submitted proposals. There are a number of long-term considerations to look at before moving forward with the jail project, they said.

  A feasibility study done last year recommended 90 to 100 beds to replace the existing 15-bed jail, and commissioners have said a 72- or 96-bed is likely the size they will pursue.

  Preliminary estimates suggest such a facility would cost in the neighborhood of $10 million.  Another study pegged the swath of county-owned land along Fleetfoot Road between state Route 29 and Mud Pike as the prime site to build, but county officials have not yet made a firm commitment to the site.

  The presumed site could pose some challenges in the future, however.

  If county officials ever decide to expand its court facilities, housing a courtroom along with or close to the jail would be preferred. But county courts cannot operate outside the county seat, in this case Celina. But the county-owned land lies well outside the current city limits.

  Also, by siting a jail outside of Celina, the county likely would have to ensure an office for the sheriff's department remains within the city, Laffin said. State law requires the sheriff's office to maintain a presence in the county seat.

  "These are things we need to think about for 15 or 20 years down the road," Commissioner Jerry Laffin said.

  The county's courthouse committee, which oversees the courthouse and jail facilities, discussed the issue during a meeting Thursday. Laffin characterized the meeting as a "brainstorming" session where county officials pondered a number of long-term issues involving a new jail.

  Waiting to make a final decision on where to build a new jail is not slowing down the overall design process, Laffin said.

  County officials also are investigating potential funding assistance and are willing to delay the project if a grant opportunity arises. Reaching the ballot by November seems unlikely, commissioners said.

  "We don't want to rush this thing, even though it is really a need," Laffin said.

  "November might be pushing it," Commissioner Jim Zehringer said.

  County officials have yet to decide what sort of tax they will seek to help pay for the jail. A sales tax seems the most likely option and is how most area jails were funded.


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