The Dane County jail project, once again, is in jeopardy of derailing after years of debates, several unforeseen delays, and tens of millions of dollars spent on planning and designs. As Isthmus reported in March, a last-minute compromise by the Dane County Board and other county officials increased borrowing for the project to $164 million — more than double the cost of the original jail consolidation project passed in 2017.
The latest plan was to shutter the outdated and dangerous jail facility on the top two floors of the City County Building, build a new six-story tower behind the Public Safety Building with medical and mental health facilities, and (eventually) reduce the total number of beds in the jail system to 825. But in May, the official cost estimate came in $10 million higher than what supervisors approved in March. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi says the higher price tag is a result of increasing construction costs and inflation.
Inflation is not showing signs of easing, says Parisi. “There’s just every reason to move forward and not to delay.”
It took some last-minute negotiations between supervisors earlier this year to keep the jail project on track. And that was before the April election where many incumbent supervisors did not seek reelection and more progressives were elected. It requires a three-fourths majority for additional borrowing outside the budget process and Parisi says the votes aren’t there anymore. As a result, he and Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett are calling on voters, via a binding referendum on the November ballot, to approve $10 million more in borrowing to keep the jail project on track. Parisi says the county has already spent $50 million on the project.
“I think it’ll pass. I don’t think it’s as controversial in the greater community as it is [with county board supervisors],” says Parisi. “We need to move forward with this program, because if we don’t, I just don’t see it happening. If 10 years of negotiations isn’t enough, I don’t know what is. I don’t see any other way forward besides letting voters decide.”
A referendum requires approval from only a simple majority of supervisors. That decision needs to be made at the board’s Aug. 18 meeting so there’s enough time to get the referendum on the November ballot. Dane County Board Chair Patrick Miles agrees with Parisi that at the moment the votes aren’t there for the board to keep the jail project on track.
“We need 28 votes for borrowing authority and my best estimate is we only have 24 or 25. Inflation is really kicking us in the ass, here. I was hopeful but skeptical that this would be settled once and for all in March,” says Miles. “Many of the people who don’t want to borrow more money… they think we should be working more aggressively and quickly on alternatives to incarceration.”
Miles says another compromise to get 28 out of 37 supervisors on board might be coming in the next few weeks. That would avoid having to place the measure on the ballot. But Miles won’t predict whether that’s likely to happen and he’s also not keen on the referendum idea (which has already been introduced).
“I think it’s an abdication of our responsibility. We as a board should be coming to a decision,” says Miles. “I’m also not confident voters would approve the referendum, which would just bring us back to the same spot we’re in now.”