JEFFERSON — Jefferson County officials plan on spending up to $43 million on much-needed renovations to the county’s courthouse, sheriff’s department and jail, but as it was revealed at Tuesday’s January meeting of the county board, leaders are determined to “do it right the first time,” so more expensive future updates are not needed.
As part of the project’s evolution, on Tuesday evening the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors voted to approve a Law Enforcement Center/jail expansion as it was presented, with county funding of $900,000 added. The vote on this motion, which was made by Walt Christensen of Fort Atkinson, was 24-3, with three absent. Dissenting were Mike Kelly of Johnson Creek, and Greg David and Jim Braughler of Watertown.
The addition of the $900,000 to the project cost brings it to almost $40.5 million, allowing it to still fall within the $43 million worth of funds reserved.
The additional $900,000 in project money is to be spent on the addition and renovation of existing space, including a courtroom. The incorporation of estimated inflation impact is also a part of the expense.
“This is based on present estimates,” said Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier.
The Jefferson County Courthouse was built in various phases, starting in 1961, with substantial additions in 1966 and 1991.
According to Wehmeier, the intent of the county, at this point, is to maintain an operational courthouse facility through the duration of the project.
“The timing of the project schedule, at this point, is that bids will be approved this summer by the county board,” Wehmeier said. “Work on the additions is tentatively scheduled to start in a September/October time frame. Once construction starts, it is estimated to be a 24-26 month project at this point. The goal would to be to have it completed, roughly, by the end of 2024.”
Before Christensen’s motion was approved, Wehmeier said planners from the county, Potter Lawson and Partners and Maas Brothers Construction Co., want to have as much guidance from the board of supervisors as possible.
“This way we don’t waste time and money,” Wehmeier said. “We want (this project and its expenditures) to be in line with what the county board wants.”
Jefferson County Jail Administrator Capt. Margareta Gray told the board that, over her many years working in the jail, she has seen a huge change in the facility and the needs of its population.
Gray said that, these days, more holding cells are needed for people who are brought into the jail and are just starting their time there. Gray said these inmates need to be observed in a location that is easily visible to jailers, so they can be evaluated for things like chemical dependency, violent tendencies and mental illness. She said the jail’s current holding cells are usually full.
Gray said a jail in 2022 is not like jails of the past. She said current county jails are places where people are detained, but are also educated, trained and rehabilitated, so when they are released, they can be productive members of society. This takes space.
Gray said some of the programs in the jail offer inmates a chance to earn their GED diplomas, obtain OSHA certifications, deal with alcohol and other drug issues, gain literacy skills, receive counseling on being better parents, attend religious services and listen to speakers who provide life lessons on how to behave when released from incarceration.
“We utilize multipurpose rooms frequently,” she said.
Gray also said the jail needs more in the way of daylight, outdoor recreation opportunities and indoor exercise options. She said better mental health for inmates can come through these offerings and that prisoners often become “stir crazy” if they can’t see daylight once in awhile.
“Outdoor recreation would help us with mental health issues,” she said.
Gray also said that, although the jail has an approved capacity of 229 beds, there are only 115 inmates housed there now, due, in part, to COVID-19 concerns. The pre-COVID-19, daily census average was 180-190 inmates.
Gray said improvements in the jail might bring back not only state inmates to the county jail — meaning profit for the county — but the federal government might consider housing inmates in Jefferson County.
“This is for now and the future,” Sheriff Paul Milbrath said of Law Enforcement Center/jail improvements. “This is a lot of money to spend, but let’s do it right the first time.”