Planning about county jail to start next year

URBANA — Planning for an addition to the Champaign County satellite jail or at least a remodeling of the current downtown jail will begin in earnest in January.

Tom Betz, the Urbana Democrat who chairs the county board's facilities committee, has scheduled a board study session on the long-discussed multimillion-dollar issue.

"I know some people are going to say that we shouldn't build a jail, that if we build it they will just fill it. They're not totally wrong, but it's not as if if we don't build it they won't fill it," Betz said. "There's crime out there. There are real issues out here. And I would rather have people in a safe, secure environment that can provide the potential for education and prevention and rehabilitation."

Betz is firm in his opinion that the 31-year-old downtown jail, located across Main Street from the courthouse, cannot be fixed. Sheriff Dan Walsh and State's Attorney Julia Rietz have for years made the same point.

"I think there is an acknowledgement on the part of most county board members who have gone to the downtown jail and have been around a while that it is not viable in its present form," he said. "There are design issues, transportation issues, the idea that you have two separate facilities (it and a larger satellite jail on Urbana's east side) with limited staff.

"My own view is that it should not be done, but I don't want to preclude that discussion in January."

Betz said he believes the downtown facility "is not salvageable as a jail and I don't think it can be remodeled. To remodel it would cost more than building a new jail."

The building was undersized and poorly designed in 1980, many county officials have claimed, mostly the result of county board members trying to balance their own conservatism with judicial demands to replace an aging jail.

"The one thing I know I don't want to do is leave a legacy of making the same mistake twice," said Betz, who is not running for re-election next year. "That is, to build the facility based on money than on need."

Betz wants the current county board to do as much as it can on the project before its term runs out on Dec. 1, 2012.

"The current board is going to need to make some very big decisions," he said. "They will have to decide whether to build a facility out by the satellite jail. And then they will need to decide how they will fund it. I think the real fight is going to be what kind of facility do you build, how do you deal with (inmate) projections.

"I would love to be able to say that we will know what the cost is within six or eight months because I think in an ideal world, if we are going to put a property-tax increase on the ballot, the best time to do it would be in November 2012. You will have a massive presidential election and 60,000-some people voting, including a lot of students. (The 2008 election attracted 84,804 voters in the county.) I think you would have a much better chance of passing a jail bond issue in a presidential election than you would in a spring or off-year election."

It's not certain that a property-tax increase would be needed to finance construction of a new jail, Betz said.

"We don't have the money right now," he said. "But around 2015 I think some of the quarter-cent (sales tax) money is freed up. You can use that to bond out the project. But the question is, is there enough money from that to match the kind of facility that is necessary. You might be able to get a $12 to $15 million facility with that money."

I'm not sure you can get a $20 million facility. But I don't know if we need a $20 million facility. I don't know what kind of cost we're looking at."

But jails today have different needs than those a generation ago, he said.

"I think we have to address who goes into that jail," Betz said. "There has to be serious talk about the fact that it is being used as a mental health facility. We have to address that issue, that people with serious mental health issues are not the same as the general population. The sheriff knows that. He segregates them now. But neither jail we have now was designed for that purpose."

If the county board ultimately decides to add on to the satellite jail — something the facility was designed to accommodate — it will have to determine what to do with the downtown property. Betz offered a longshot wish.

"I think it would cost a million dollars to demolish the darn thing, and I don't think it has an alternative use," he said. "So maybe Hollywood will decide they need a prison break movie and we'll have Sandra Bullock come to town and we'll see that old jail smashed and they'll end up paying for it."

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