With more than 80 percent of Gage County voting against a bond issue to raise funds for a new Law Enforcement and Detention Center this past Tuesday, officials are looking ahead at what the failed motion means for the county’s future.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Rex Adams, who voted in favor of sending the jail bond issue to special election, said he wasn’t surprised the bond issue failed, but was surprised how soundly it was defeated. Adams said he was grateful to the people for having voiced their opinion.
“To me, anytime you receive 50 percent of over 15,000 votes, you can say the election was a success,” Adams said, adding the extra cost of the special election made sense in that more people voted. In 2008, a bond issue to renovate the courthouse only fetched 26 percent of Gage County’s registered voters.
Adams said despite the bond issue failing, the problems at the current jail facility haven’t disappeared.
“The need for a new facility has not gone away because of the vote,” said Adams, who said the board of supervisors needs to collect more information from the people of Gage County to better create a future bond issue more people can stand behind.
“Is it the west side people weren’t agreeing with? Did the economy play that big a part in people voting no? Was it too big?” Adams asked. “We’ve got to learn what direction to go because the need is not going to change.”
Adams said he had heard many ideas from taxpayers that sound good, but do not mesh with current Nebraska jail standards or the judicial system.
“Our first mandate is to keep our citizens safe,” Adams said. “We lock our bad guys up. But we also need to provide security for the staff.”
Adams said he hopes the board can bring new information and ideas to the problem.
“We need to make a mix that is compatible for everybody,” he said. “Our job is to bring it to the people and do what the majority of the people want.”
Supervisor Gary Barnard, who opposed the special election bond issue and the plans for a new jail, said the election result should be a wake-up call to county employees.
“I think at some point, when the public speaks as loudly and clearly as they just did, the elected people ought to get in the reality zone again and listen,” Barnard said.
Barnard, who served as a member of the law enforcement committee for the board of supervisors, said he believes people understand the need for a newer jail facility at some point in time, but the timing of the vote as well as the specs of the jail caused its landslide defeat.
“Whether (the board) likes it or not, people want the jail by the courthouse and they don’t want a big jail,” Barnard said.
Putting the jail to vote again will be a long process, Barnard said, as the board needs to review all the determining factors of the facility.
“You can keep trying to sell something and jam it down their throats but that isn’t going to work,” Barnard said. “That same architectural company has built a jail almost the size (in number of beds) we want with half the square footage.”
The board’s job is to listen to its constituents, Barnard added.
“We can never forget how to listen here in an elected office,” he said, saying he felt the board has lost track of its taxpayers somewhere down the line. “In that mindset, you’re always going to have failures.”
Steve Stedman, a member of the jail steering committee that has worked on plans for a new jail over the past two years, said he was not overly surprised by the defeat of the bond issue, but was surprised by the 4-1 ratio of votes opposing the new facility.
“We tried to get information out to the voters,” Stedman said. “I don’t know if they didn’t want to hear it or if we didn’t do as good as we thought.”
Stedman said he felt the public wasn’t completely informed on the technical aspects of the jail, including a video-arraignment room that would allow arraignments to happen without prisoners leaving the jail.
The biggest issue holding back the bond issue, Stedman said, was the location. The site is adjacent to the ESU No. 5 building near West Court Street just off Nebraska Highway 4.
“In a way, I can understand why people wondered why we wanted it out there,” Stedman said, indicating that a half dozen tours he and other steering committee members had taken of facilities in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska had sold him on the idea of building a jail near the outskirts of town.
“Going into this, the only location for me was where the jail is right now,” Stedman said. “But we looked at it, and the land was cheaper outside the city and that was one of the most reasonably priced sites.”
Stedman said he felt the committee did as much as they could have for the public.
“I don’t know if we should have done anything differently,” he said. Stedman said he and the rest of the committee is anxious to see what direction the board will take.
“If they want our assistance, we will help,” he said.
Committee chairman Bob Sykes said the jail steering committee met the county board’s mandate.
“I feel, as chairman of the committee, we did what was asked of us,” Sykes said.
The committee, which convened in October 2007, met monthly to assess the needs of the county regarding a new jail facility. Sykes said the first meeting was between the committee, several supervisors, an architect and a consultant. A supervisor regular committee, the law enforcement committee, also met to discuss the needs with the group.
“Throughout our discussions, there was other members of the supervisors that came to our meetings and were supportive at the time,” Sykes said. “After two years, our recommendation was to build as opposed to remodel.”
Sykes said the jail steering committee has been bearing the brunt of the backlash against the jail.
“As a committee we have taken a lot of heat,” Sykes said. “We’re catching slack for the new site, that was (the board of supervisors); the number of beds was the county supervisors’; when and how to vote was set by the supervisors.”
Sykes also said many ideas about the new jail facility were never brought to the committee until after the election had been set. While many of the ideas were good ideas, he said, they only came to the committee through letters to the editor of the Daily Sun and other means - not directly to the committee.
“This is kind of a Monday morning quarterback deal,” he said.
“Our job was to find the needs,” he said. “If we start over again we would do the same thing.”
Sykes said it is the responsibility of the Gage County Board of Supervisors to come to an agreement about the issue.
“You can always agree to disagree, but at some point you are going to have to come together,” Sykes said. “We didn’t have the checkbook, we just listed the needs.”