Committee recommends converting armory to jail

Following a 2 1/2 hour session last Tuesday evening in the District Courtroom, members of the Richardson County Jail Committee voted 7-1 to recommend that the Armory building, located west of Falls City, be converted into a new jail and law enforcement center.

This is a recommendation, only.  County Commissioners could opt to go this route and implement a tax increase, put the issue to voters, choose to transport prisoners to other facilities, or take no action.

In addition to committee members, including Board Chairman Dave Sickel, who chaired the committee, Commissioners Jim Davidson and Jim Standerford were also present, as well as Sheriff Randy Houser and architects Jay Weingarten and Scott Lundberg.
The Armory building was purchased several years ago by the county with the likelihood that it could be converted into a jail/law enforcement center.  The current jail, atop the Courthouse, could be ordered closed because it does not meet certain standards.  It has passed recent inspections.

The jail issue was described as involving a “tough decision,” given the tax increase that would result.  In order to convert the Armory to a jail and law enforcement center, costs for taxpayers could be as much as $25 per $100,000 in valuation for a 20-year period.  

The option of transporting prisoners would be more expensive — estimated at $7,910,629 over 20 years.  Those costs would continue should the county jail be closed, the Armory not converted and prisoners continue to be transported.

The plan to convert the Armory would meet Jail Standards, said Denny Macomber of Nebraska Jail Standards.  The cost to make the conversion (24-bed facility) is estimated at about $3.6 million and would include an addition to the front of the building.

Sheriff Houser and Macomber noted that video visits and arraignments would be a possibility at a converted facility.  Arraignments via video would result in a dramatic decrease in transportation requirements to the Courthouse.  Sheriff Houser said County Judge Curt Maschman is agreeable to video arraignments.  And Sheriff Houser explained potential problems when prisoners who have been arrested are walked through the Courthouse, especially during office hours.  

A newly converted Armory building would provide “maximum security,” the committee was told, for “both men and women.”  Costs to transport and house prisoners elsewhere are always subject to fluctuation (increases).  If prisoners were to be transported and housed, the county would continue any liability and also be responsible for medical expenses.  Transportation would also require that Sheriff’s officers be “off the road and patrol” during transport times.

It was emphasized during the meeting that costs to convert the Armory could be less than anticipated.  Sheriff Houser said he believed creating the law enforcement center (Sheriff’s office) could be cheaper than anticipated.

Concern was voiced at the tax increase that would be involved, especially if the farm economy does not prosper in the years to come.  And Sickel pointed out that costs to convert the Armory really wouldn’t be known “until we get the bids.”

The jail meeting was incorporated into the regular board meeting.  In other developments, the Commissioners:

—Met in executive session with the Veterans Service Committee and County Attorney Doug Merz to discuss personnel matters.

—Met the new Deputy County Attorney, Zachary Blackman, who began his duties on Nov. 11.

—Learned from Highway Supt. Scott Huppert that signs have been ordered to replace those in rural areas that have faded.

—Approved an agreement with Humboldt for law enforcement services through Aug. 31, 2016.  The total cost will be $185,763.  The county also agreed with Shubert to provide ordinance enforcement at a cost of $100 per month.

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